“Chia” is used to name several species of annual or perennial Salvia plants which are grown primarily for their tiny, edible, black or white seeds. These seeds can be germinated and eaten as sprouts, microgreens, or soaked in water and consumed whole. The seeds are considered to be super healthy due to their high content of omega-3 fats, as well as protein, dietary fiber, and antioxidants. When the seeds are soaked in water, they form a gelatinous mass, making them a good thickening agent and preventer of dehydration. As a member of the mint family, these plants grow opposite pairs of serrated leaves and sport purple, blue, or white flowers borne in a spike on the end of the stems.
The most common variety of chia currently cultivated is the Mexican chia, Salvia hispanica, an annual herb which will reach heights of up to 6 feet. Native to central and southern Mexico and northern Guatemala, this plant is adapted to a tropical or subtropical climate. Flowering is induced by shortening day lengths, which begins in the late summer and early fall. This can be problematic for growers in northern latitudes where fatal frosts accompany this change. Breeders are creating varieties which are better adapted to temperate climates and will produce seeds before being killed by frost, but many of these varieties are patent pending and only available from select plant breeders. Still, you can grow these plants for their flowers, which will attract beneficial insects, and leaves, which can be used to make tea.
Seed: One popular technique for planting chia in the garden is to spread a dense layer of seeds and then thin plants to their final spacing once the seeds begin to sprout. This gives you a supply of tasty sprouts as you thin.
Seed Depth: 1/8–1/4″
Space Between Plants: 8–12″
Space Between Rows: 18–24″
Germination Soil Temperature: 70–80°F
Days for Germination: 3–14
Sow Indoors: 4–6 weeks before average last frost. At any time if growing for sprouts or microgreens.
Sow Outdoors: Late spring or early summer after all danger of frost has passed.
Vegetative: It’s possible to grow plants from stem cuttings. Root in a glass of water or soilless medium, like peat moss.
Native to tropical and subtropical climates, chia is well adapted to heat and drought and will grow in disturbed soils. Its wild range is diminishing due to overgrazing and fire suppression (plants love to grow in areas which were recently burned). Chia not frost tolerant, so you should grow them as summertime annuals in climates colder than USDA Zone 8. However, due to their daylength-induced flowering, it’s not likely that you will get a seed crop from these plants if growing in temperate regions.
Natural: Full sun. Flowering time is determined by day length, and will generally only begin once days start to shorten in fall.
Artificial: Grows well under LED or fluorescent lamps. You can switch to a high pressure sodium HID bulb to induce flowering for seed production. Provide 12 hours of light per day during vegetative growth, decreasing that number when you want plants to produce flowers and seeds.
Soil: Prefers well-drained sandy, loamy, or clay soils with moderate fertility. Will not do well in wet soil. This plant tolerates a wide range of soil pH.
Soilless: Germinate seeds or grow sprouts in a soilless mix of peat moss or coco coir. Mix with perlite and/or pine bark to increase drainage.
Hydroponics: Thrives in a hydroponic system with adequate drainage. Try using clay pellets as your growing medium.
Aeroponics: Thrives in aeroponic systems.
Water: Requires low to moderate levels of water. Keep seeds consistently moist. Once plants are established, they are quite drought tolerant and will prefer staying dry to being too wet.
Nutrients: Requires moderate levels of nutrients. Amend poor soils with compost or wood ash before planting.
Foliar: Will benefit from a foliar feeding of liquid seaweed.
Pruning: If you want to grow chia for its foliage or prevent reseeding in warmer climates, deadhead flowers regularly.
Mulching: Use mulch to suppress weeds, as chia does not like competition.
Pest(s): Rarely bothered by pests, but watch for:
Disease(s): Not frequently susceptible to disease, although plants may rot if kept too wet. Additionally, commercially cultivated plants have recently exhibited viral infections from:
Rotation: Alternating with legume crops may be beneficial for providing chia with adequate supplies of nitrogen. It also may be possible to alternate chia with winter wheat for a double harvest in the same year.
Companions: Grows well with other species in the Salvia genus, such as sage.
Harvest: For a seed harvest, wait until flowers have begun to drop their petals. Pick and hang them upside down in paper bags to dry fully. You can then crush flower heads and remove the chaff from the seed by pouring the resulting material in front of a gently blowing fan. Pick fresh leaves at any time by cutting off the top of a few stems, just above a node.
Storage: Keep in an airtight container. The high antioxidant content of the chia seed will allow it to stay fresh for several months or a year, and you will not generally need to refrigerate or freeze whole seeds. Keep ground seeds in the fridge and use quickly for best results. Fresh leaves should be used within a few days, or dried and kept in a dark place in an airtight container for a few months.
Fun Fact: Does this plant sound familiar from your childhood? That’s because this is the species found in Chia Pets®! Ch-ch-ch-chia!
Preserve: Use chia seeds in jelly or jam recipes as an alternative thickening agent.
Prepare: Use leaves, fresh or dried, to make a tea. This tea is said to have therapeutic benefits. Seeds can be added to baked goods like breads, biscuits, cakes, tortillas, and cookies. Whole seeds or sprouts can be used for topping breakfast cereals or salads. Commonly, seeds are mixed with a beverage like water, tea, juice, or nut milks and allowed to absorb the liquid and form a gel before drinking. Mix chia seeds into a smoothie or energy bar recipe to boost its nutrition.
Nutritional: Provides a high quantity of omega-3 fatty acids and dietary fiber, as well as antioxidants. Also a good source of vitamin(s) B, D, and E, calcium, magnesium, iron, zinc, boron, and protein.
Medicinal: The healthy fatty acids provided by chia seeds provide the benefits of a reduced risk of heart disease, cancer, and stroke and may also increase brain function and prevent depression. They’re also beneficial for bone health due to a high calcium content. Enzymes found in soaked chia seeds aid digestion, and seeds are said to provide a lasting energy source when eaten. The tea made from chia leaves is said to be cleansing and has been used for pain relief, fever, lowering blood pressure, treating arthritis, strengthening the immune system, and reducing symptoms of menopause. Chia seeds are also useful for helping to stabilize blood sugar levels by slowing the conversion of carbohydrates into blood sugar.
Warnings: Do not eat dry chia seeds, as they can absorb water while in your esophagus and swell up, causing a blockage! So always soak the seeds in water or another liquid before eating, and be sure to stay well hydrated after eating. Chia seed allergies are also possible. Take particular care if you know you have known allergies to oregano, thyme, sesame, or mustard. If you have low blood pressure or are taking prescription blood thinners, you should avoid consuming chia seeds or consult with a doctor before use. Pregnant women and lactating mothers may wish to avoid chia as well, due to a lack of research on it effects.
Make a simple, no-cook Raspberry and Chia Jam in your blender! Experiment and use another fruit, and we bet it’ll be just as delicious.
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