When it comes to Christmas gift giving, our family has one simple rule – no pets, especially ones with the ability to bark, meow, fly, swim or slither. The ‘slithering’ gifts are completely off limits as far as I’m concerned, right up there with polka-dot ties and those plaid Gatsby golfing hats.
You can imagine my apprehension last Christmas when my merry prankster wife announced that she had bought me a pet. Luckily, when I opened it I discovered that instead of the ‘pee on the carpet’ variety, the critter turned out to be that famous little novelty called a Chia Pet.
I never imagined growing one of these goofy relics from the 80s and 90s would be on my list of challenging horticultural projects for 2014, but after pondering the weird little figurine for a week, I decided to give it a go.
One of the first things I noticed is that chia seeds are remarkably hygroscopic – they can absorb a tremendous amount of liquid, which produces a sort of gooey, gluey consistency that aids in germination and is also perfect for pasting on to the grooved clay pot. The strategically placed seeds took about five days to show signs of life, and after two weeks of fussing I became the proud owner of a little green monstrosity that sat on the windowsill between the orchids and geraniums.
That is until my other pet decided chia was a lot tastier than cat grass and ate most of the sprouts.
I decided a little reading might be in order to determine whether my hacking and coughing little feline was going to be permanently cured of hairballs or drop dead from an overdose of chia. I not only discovered the sprouts are harmless to cats – and may even be beneficial – but also that the seeds have been cultivated for thousands of years for their almost supernatural nutritional and medicinal qualities.
Chia (Salvia hispanica) is a semi-tropical member of the mint family native to areas of Mexico and Central America, where it grows as a metre-high bushy shrub. The plant’s tall spiked flower heads bear a striking resemblance to those of common sage (Salvia officinalis) and in the southern Mexican state of Chiapias where the plant thrives, ‘Chiapan’ means ‘river of sage’. Like many other varieties of salvia, they produce a prolific number of seeds after the blooms fade in July and August.
Mayans and Aztecs understood the food value of chia over 3,000 years ago and used its seeds to make flavoured beverages and mucilaginous porridge mixtures which were considered to be a versatile and nutritious part of their diet. Mayans discovered relatively small amounts of raw chia provided stamina and sustenance on day treks and long hunting trips. The literal translation of chia is ‘strength’. In fact, chia was so culturally important historians believe it featured prominently in Mayan religious ceremonies and was even used as a form of currency.
In modern times it’s not surprising that an ancient grain associated with those tacky ‘as seen on TV’ commercials has had trouble competing with flax and quinoa as a serious source of nutrition. But thanks to a few years of Oprah and Oz touting it as a superfood it has been in great demand for the last decade.
Its health food credentials are impressive – a study at the University of Toronto found chia may be of great benefit in treating diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity. The seed is gluten-free, has more dietary fibre than flax and is chock-full of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. When water is added, seeds assume the unappetizing consistency of wallpaper paste, but if mixed with juice or in a smoothie, chia makes a pleasant nutty-flavoured drink that is filling and sustains energy over extended periods of time.
If you want to try some of this Mayan superfood you don’t have to wait for that holiday season “Cha Cha Cha Chia” jingle to get your supply. Most whole food stores and Bulk Barn outlets carry viable chia seeds that will easily sprout, although some high end retailers sell it under the trademarked name ‘Salba’, a slightly refined and more expensive white version of Salvia hispanica.
Steven Chadwick is a professional gardener and horticulturist, and longtime Beach resident