The Charm of Desert Chia

A patch of desert chia (Salvia columbariae) inviting pollinators….

A patch of desert chia (Salvia columbariae) inviting pollinators….(MABurgess photo)

It is happening right now in desert gardens and up desert arroyo beds–the visual surprise of desert chia! But you have to look twice, as they can be elusive.

Tia Marta here to share some thoughts about a very important little desert ephemeral.  Salvia columbariae, brought on by winter rains, is spreading its lovely ground-hugging rosettes and beginning to send up its wand-like square flower stalks to greet pollinators with spherical clusters of deep blue flowerlets–almost appearing “ultraviolet” to our eyes.

Chia’s foliage itself is a wonder.  If you get down on hands and knees with a magnifier, you’ll see a most knobby green terrain-of-a-leaf.  Pinch the leaf and a luscious bouquet arises.  Oh if we could capture that scent!  It would make a lovely lotion.

A rosette of beautiful desert chia with its scented, intaglio foliage--Wishing this were a squeeze-and-sniff photo!

A rosette of beautiful desert chia with its scented, intaglio foliage–Wishing this were a squeeze-and-sniff photo! (MABurgess photo)

Humans are funny in that when we see wildflowers emerge in the spring, as they are now, we HAVE TO HAVE THEM in our gardens!  Well, if we want them now, we should have planted the seeds last fall!  Put it on your calendar right away–on the October page–to buy those chia seeds and plant them at the beginning of October when the nights turn cool.  Or, if you are into instant gratification, if you need a quick wildflower fix, there just might be a plant sale this weekend somewhere in Tucson, AZ, where they will have potted chia starts ready to put in the ground–to give you a show, and a harvest, before hot weather sets in.  If you like to gamble, you could rake in some seeds this month and chances are the seeds (which have built-in DNA smarts) will wait until fall rains come to germinate, as their germination-triggers are attuned to cool/wet conditions; amazingly, hot summer rains  won’t tempt them out of seed dormancy.

Balls of spiny seedheads climb the square stems of these mint-family wonders, as long as moisture lasts.

Balls of spiny seedheads climb the square stems of these mint-family wonders, as long as cool moisture lasts. (MABurgess photo)

 

Close-up of desert chia in flower--note the sphere of tiny flowers (JRMondt photo)

Close-up of desert chia in flower–note the sphere of tiny flowers (JRMondt photo)

Check out the Plant Sale THIS WEEKEND–March 11-13–at the NativeSeeds/SEARCH store, 3061 N Campbell Ave, Tucson, for starts of several spring ephemerals–maybe even chia.  There is still time to get them planted to enjoy their color and later their seeds.

And, take a walk up any arroyo–Yetman Trail or King Canyon in the Tucson Mountains, Pima Canyon or Finger Rock Canyon into the Catalinas, or trails in Catalina State Park–for a chance to see a patch of desert chia in bloom.

Double desert chia seedhead (JRMondt photo)

Double desert chia seedhead (JRMondt photo)

About April and May, when the days are getting hot and dry, return to your patch of chia to find straw-colored spiny balls dancing on slender dry stalks, usually calf-high, sometimes knee-high, or, after a wet winter/spring, perhaps thigh-high.  Try to find them just after they dry before the breeze has battered them and scattered their seed.  With a strong paper sack (or a canvas bag that you can wash later to soften the spiny bracts that will get stuck in the fabric), gather the seedheads and crush them.  Bare hands or soft-gloved hands BEWARE!  Best to use leather gloves for gathering seedheads.

 

Dry stalks and spiny seed heads of desert chia (MABurgess photo)

Dry stalks and spiny seedheads of desert chia (MABurgess photo)

In earlier times, Native Peoples may have used baskets shaped like combs to pass through patches of chia seedheads to gather many at a time.  There are records of Cocopa and Chemehuevi people of the Colorado Desert storing large ollas full of chia seed.  When you see how tiny the seeds are and realize how much work it is to harvest an olla of chia seed, the time and effort must have been astounding–but they KNEW how important this food is!  When chia was ready, the whole village had to be out there gathering, making the most of the short window of opportunity.

The nutrition of chia–both our native desert chia and the Aztec chia, Salvia hispanicum–is way up there among the super-foods.  Packed in the tiny seeds is a big percentage of omega-3 fatty acids.  In addition, chia contains complex carbs which give lots of sustained energy, like slow-release fertilizer–a great food for athletes.  These same carbs balance blood sugar, providing a gift to hypoglycemics or diabetics.

Taste the glorious nutrition of a chia-mesquite-berry smoothie! (MABurgess photo)

Taste the glorious nutrition of a chia-mesquite-berry smoothie! (MABurgess photo)

Chia Mesquite Berry Smoothie Recipe

1 Tbsp chia seed, and a pinch for garnish

1 cup apple or cranberry juice

2 tsp mesquite meal (optional, and delicious)

1 cup frozen blueberries or raspberries (or other favorite berry)

1 cup vanilla yogurt (or 1 cup plain yogurt and 2 tsp agave nectar)

ice optional

Soak 1 T chia seed in a cup of apple juice or other fruit juice for 5-10 minutes.  Then combine all other ingredients in a blender.  Pulse until all ingredients are mixed. Pour into 2 big glasses, sprinkle top with a pinch of chia seed, and enjoy with a pal!

 

Tarahumara Chia and Desert Chia are available in seed packets and seed mixtures from NativeSeeds/SEARCH.

Tarahumara Chia and Desert Chia are available in seed packets and seed mixtures from NativeSeeds/SEARCH.

You can visit the NativeSeeds/SEARCH online catalog or visit the one-of-a-kind store on North Campbell Avenue to find the right seeds for your garden.  They have Tarahumara chia, the one made famous by the Raramuri native runners of the Sierra Madre.  NSS also has every wildflower mix containing desert chia, for spring garden showiness or benefits to wildlife.  Come by the Flor de Mayo booth at StPhilips Farmers Market for ideas for using chia and a pinch to try for yourself.  For learning more about seed saving, try a class at NativeSeeds/SEARCH.

The gifts of chia–from the visual and olfactory, to the culinary and the medicinal–are many, and even magical.  We can participate in spreading their wealth of beauty and benefit by planting and harvesting, saving their seeds and passing them along with hope and intent….

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Categories: Sonoran Native | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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4 thoughts on “The Charm of Desert Chia

  1. Mary

    Thanks, Tia Marta and Rod, for the great chia tips and the lovely purple and green photographs.
    Mary
    Temecula, CA

  2. I am new to chia seeds and will definitely be adding your recipe to my list of ones to try! Great information and pictures on the desert chia too. I wonder if they’d grow in Wales?

  3. Thank you for your response and interest in chia! Wales may be a little cool and moist for our desert chia–unless you can give them a relatively drier and warmer microhabitat in which to sprout. Since desert chia is a winter ephemeral in low desert, it might be worth trying them in the summer elsewhere. Also try the Tarahumara chia, as it is from higher elevation, cooler terrain.

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