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Plant Medicine: Grow Your Own Chia

Watch our documentary Tending The Wild on KCET TV, February 7 at 9:00 p.m. 

This article includes discussion of Native Californian peoples' traditional use of plants as medicine. It is intended for cultural and environmental education purposes only, and should not be taken as medical advice. 

Back in the day, the fields of California were so full of chia that in some places nothing else was able to grow. Growing each year from seed, the one-and-a-half-foot-tall plants produced nutritious seeds that served as a staple food for native Californians for millennia. Using seedbeaters, specialized tools woven from willow and other materials, Native people literally beat the dried flower heads of chia plants back and forth above burden baskets; the seeds in those flower heads fell into the basket. Or most of them did, anyway.  The process usually scattered enough seeds to ensure an abundant crop of chia in the same spot the next spring.

Indigenous cooks cleaned the chia seeds, then roasted them by heating rocks and placing them in baskets with the seeds. Sometimes the chia seeds were mixed with seeds of other plants such as red maids and purple needlegrass and cooked into a thin porridge the Spaniards called “pinole.” Sometimes they were simply ground and eaten dry by hand, a food surprisingly rich in complex carbohydrates, oil and protein.

That culinary use of chia is increasingly familiar to modern Americans, because a similar seed is for sale at more and more stores throughout the U.S. But what many people still don’t realize is that chia was an important plant medicine used in a variety of applications by Native Californians.

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The seeds were often used, mixed with water and mashed, to help keep wounds from getting infected. Some healers would remove foreign objects from eyes by putting chia seeds under the affected person’s eyelids: the seeds, exposed to tears, would develop a gelatinous coating that adhered to the foreign object, which would then be flushed out with the chia.

According to anthropologist TC Blackburn, some historical Chumash people referred to chia as a plant that could “wake the dead.” In 2005, intrigued by this description and suspecting that the "death" referred to may actually have been severe illness due to heart disease or stroke, a pharmacologist, and botanist, and a Chumash traditional healer explored the pharmacological constituents of chia roots and found substances — tanshiniones — that are known to inhibit clotting, and might thus prove useful in the treatment of strokes.

Watch Tending the Wild: Gathering Medicine

Chia — Salvia columbariae — still grows throughout California, but 250 years of livestock grazing and competition from introduced plants such as mustard and wild oats have reduced the state’s wild chia crop significantly.  It’s still locally abundant in some areas, and it’s not by any stretch of the imagination a rare plant, though one of the two varieties native to California, Ziegler’s chia, was considered for inclusion in the California Native Plant Society’s Rare Plant List. It wasn’t rare enough to make the cut.

Despite the fact that chia won’t be making the Endangered Species List anytime soon, its relative scarcity compared to the good old days before settlers got here means that Native people have a hard time gathering enough chia to make traditional foods. And people aren’t the only species that benefits from chia seeds’ offering of all those handy nutrients. Chia seeds feed a whole food chain by feeding small birds and rodents, who then feed the animals that eat them. These days, it’s best practice for most of us, especially non-Native people, to leave chia seeds on the plant.

Unless, that is, you grow them yourself.

As chia plants are surpassingly unlikely to be found in the “annual flowers” section of your local nursery, that means you’re pretty much going to need to grow them from seed.

That’s one of those “good news, bad news” situations. The good news is that growing chia from seed is pretty easy. The bad news? Chia seed is harder to find than you think.

Yes, yes, the convenience store on the corner will sell you a half pound of chia seeds for  $4.95 these days. And you can plant them in your garden, and they will grow. But they’re not the same kind of chia that grows native in California. They’re Salvia hispanica, a species from South and Central America that isn’t particularly closely related to California’s chia. It’s a perfectly nice plant, far taller than Salvia columbariae (more than five feet in good conditions) and as important to Native people in its own native range as California chia is to California Indians.

But if your intent is to grow California’s native chia, the stuff at Whole Foods isn’t it.

It’s harder to find Salvia columbariae seeds, but not impossible. Larner Seeds,  Seedhunt, and Stover Seeds are a few examples of California seed companies that carry native chia seed. Consider ordering seeds from the nursery nearest the spot where you plan to grow them, and ask the nursery where they got their chia stock: otherwise, you run the risk of bringing Nevada County chia genes into the wildlands of San Diego, or wherever you happen to be gardening. Local is better, because you’re less likely to muck up the state’s wild chia genome.

Once you’ve got the seed, you need to figure out where to put it. Chia needs sun, so any spot where you’d plant tomatoes will probably suffice. Broadcast the seed in the spot where you want your chia in October or November, and either rake the seeds in to the top eighth inch of soil or sprinkle about that much posting soil onto the chia patch. Then, cross your fingers for rain. Given a few good soakings — possibly augmented once a month with a quick shower by way of garden hose.

Given luck and precipitation, the chia should start germinating sometime in January. Things being what they are in this world, a number of plants you probably don’t want will germinate long before then. It’s important not to let them take over; chia grows less enthusiastically if it has to compete with weeds taller than an inch or so. Learn what chia seedlings’ corrugated young leaves look like, then pull everything else from your patch until the chia gets established.

What chia leaves look like
What chia leaves look like. | Photo: Laura Camp, some rights reserved

As an annual plant well adapted to California’s seasons, chia grows quickly, putting out attractive tubular purple blossoms on globular heads in March or April — just a couple months after germinating — and setting seed starting in May. By June, if all goes well, you should be able to shake seeds out of the plants’ spent flower heads into a clean bucket.

A small patch of less than ten by ten feet might give you quarter cup of seeds, if you’re very lucky: about enough for one or two chia-fortified smoothies. Some seeds will fall to the soil and provide more chia next year. You might consider foregoing the smoothies and just shaking all the seeds out onto the ground.

If you happen to have more than a backyard garden to work with, say a quarter acre or more, that’s when you might be able to grow enough chia to feed a few people. If you do, you might consider seeing if there are any Native Californians in your area who would appreciate a place to gather one of their most important traditional foods, and invite them over. Not only is it something like reparations, but your new friends may well teach you something interesting about the plants you helped grow.

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Co-produced by KCETLink and the Autry Museum of the American West, the Tending the Wild series is presented in association with the Autry's groundbreaking California Continued exhibition. 

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