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Gardening Tips: Chia

Late fall is the time to sow California native wildflowers, just in time for the rains. One of my favorites is Chia (Salvia columbariae). This annual member of the sage genus has an interesting growth habit: Grey-green leaves lie flat against the ground in a rosette while almost leafless flower stalks rise up in March.  Each stalk has 2-3 “whorls” (balls) of deep blue flowers and purple bracts that attract pollinators such as the hover flies (whose voracious larvae keep pests in check), butterflies, and bees. Flower stalks in my garden have varied in height from a few inches to a foot and a half, but I have read of some sending up stalks four feet high.

Later, nutritious seeds will ripen, providing a feast for seed-eating birds. It is very entertaining to watch the extremely lightweight Lesser Goldfinch balance on a Chia stalk while picking at the seeds.

The word “Chia” is from the Aztec word “chian,” which means “oily.” Indigenous people made an energy-enhancing drink from the seeds. The Chia seeds you find in health food stores are usually from another plant called Chia, Salvia hispanica, which is not native to California.

I originally bought my Chia seeds at a Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden and now it comes up by itself every year. (Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, devoted to plants from California and some from Baja, has had a name change. It is now called California Botanic Garden.)

If I want to collect the seeds to plant elsewhere or give away, I put old whorls in a quart yogurt container, put on the lid and shake it; seeds will fall to the bottom.  When you grow it, it is important to differentiate seedlings from weeds. Chia seedlings are fairly easy to identify because the leaves are very bumpy looking. One aid to identifying  seedlings when you are a beginner is to plant a few in a pot, labeling the pot, so that you will have known seedlings to compare to the ones coming up amongst other plants in your garden.