Will the real golden chia please stand up?
By Christopher Nyerges
The use of chia seeds in the diet has grown in popularity in the last few decades. It’s a nutritious seed that can be added to coffee, drinks, puddings, desserts and lots of other foods.
Inez Ainge wrote in an article, “Native Chia” (1967), that “chia has been proclaimed a high-energy food not only because it contains a high percentage of protein (30%), but because it also contains a natural enzyme which acts as a catalyst for the protein.”
A nutritional analysis done in 1964 shows 20.2% protein, 34.4% oil and 5.6% ash, as well as significant amounts of iron, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium and traces of other minerals common to most seeds.
This golden chia is a native to Southern California and the Southwest generally, and it is not the chia commonly sold in all health food stores, so let’s try to clear up that confusion.
Golden chia — salvia columbariae — received significant public attention in the 1950s and ’60s, due to the writing of Harrison Doyle, mostly in Desert magazine.
He authored the self-published book “Golden Chia: Ancient Indian Energy Food.” He also cultivated the seed for sale, and encouraged others to do so. Doyle writes, “As a boy in Needles, California, I played with the Mohave Indians my own age. I ate their foods, ran long-distance races with them, rode their colorful Indian ponies bareback, whacked a tin can around the yellow silt flats in the ancient game of shinny. I remember some of the Indian boys telling me (I was interested in long-distance running at the time) that Indian runners sometimes ran all the way to the coast on trading expeditions with the Coast Tribes, carrying gourd shells containing water and a handful of chia seeds to sustain them.”
Harrison also frequently mentioned the writing of Dr. J.T. Roth-rock, botanist and surgeon of the Wheeler United States Geographical Survey of 1875. Rothrock wrote that the chia was cultivated as regularly as corn by the Nahua races of ancient Mexico.
Of the seed, Rothrock writes, “An atole, or gruel, of this was one of the peace offerings to the first visiting sailors. One tablespoon of these seeds was sufficient to sustain for 24 hours an Indian on a forced march.” Harrison pointed out that this was most likely referring to Indian runners and traders in the desert Southwest.
As a result of the writings of Doyle, health food stores wanted to provide the seeds to their customers.
Though there had been some attempts to cultivate the native chia, a related plant, salvia hispánica, had already been in production in Mexico, and so this was the readily available seed that met the demand from health food stores. To this day, salvia hispánica is the majority of the “chia” that is sold in markets. Salvia hispánica seed resembles a tiny mottled pinto bean, usually dark gray or black but occasionally gray or nearly white. The native golden chia — S. columbariae — has a brownish or goldish-tan seed that is almost pyramidal in shape. Both seeds will form a gelatinous outer layer when soaked in water, nearly white.
Most objective studies indicate that whether you’re using the commercial chia (salvia hispánica) or whether you’re one of the rare ones who either grows or collects their own native chia (S. columbariae), you’ll be getting a top-quality nutritional seed either way.
Doyle reported in his book that he conducted several tests on himself of the native vs. the non-native commercial chia seeds. In general, he says, the golden chia seed produced a pronounced feeling of excess physical energy that he didn’t experience from the nonnative seeds.
Using the chia seeds
Indigenous people of the Southwest collected the seeds by bending the stems of the mature plants and shaking them into a finely woven basket. In a solid stand of the plant, a surprisingly large amount can be gathered in a short time. When I locate such a place, I usually just shake the heads into a small plastic collecting bag. You can then shake the seeds through a fine mesh screen to remove all foreign particles.
The seeds can be made into drinks by simply soaking for a few minutes in either hot or cold water or fruit juice and drinking as is. I add about a teaspoon to my daily coffee.
Almost tasteless, the seeds, when so used, are inexplicably refreshing. The Pomo Indians ground the seeds into meal and used as flour for small cakes or loaves. Today, many people mix the chia flour half and half with wheat flour to make bread. The seeds, like any other edible seeds, can also be sprouted and eaten as a fresh vegetable.
For dishes such as cereals, mush and soups, add two tablespoons of seeds per cup of water. As the mixture warms (chia doesn’t need to be cooked as do most cereal grains), the water will become mucilaginous. This tapioca-like food can be eaten as it is (or sweetened to taste with honey) or can be added as a smoothening agent or extender to pancake batter, biscuits, bread, ice cream, pudding, coffee, cold drinks and more.
The seeds, when eaten, are useful in gastrointestinal disorders and as an emollient. When drunk in tea or eaten, the seeds also aid bronchial and throat troubles. The seeds can be crushed between the fingers to produce an oil (generally called chia oil) for the skin.
Daniel Moerman, in his monumental “Native American Ethnobotany,” describes many of the edible and medicinal uses of the native chia. Among the Native Americans of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado, a decoction made from the fresh or dried leaves has been used to relieve stomach troubles. The fresh leaves of all members of the mint family, including chia, abound in volatile oils contained in resinous dots in the leaves and stems.
Recognizing the golden chia plant
Mostly oblong-ovate in overall outline, each leaf varies from one to several inches long. Each leaf is bipinnately divided; that is, the margin is indented into segments along a common axis, and each segment is further pinnately divided. The leaf surface is finely wrinkled and covered on both sides with tiny fine hairs. The leaves, mostly basal, grow in opposite pairs — generally two or three pairs of leaves per stalk.
The small, typical mint-family flowers are blue, two-lipped, about half-inch long, and clustered into round whorls along the stalk(s). There are usually one to four whorls per stalk, with numerous sharply pointed purplish bracts at the base of each whorl. The plant is usually in flower from March through June, though sometimes a few random plants will be found flowering into summer.
The seeds are best collected in July and August when recently matured, but before strong winds or rains have shaken them onto the ground.
Golden chia, salvia columbariae, is native to California and is commonly found in the high-desert regions (1,500 to 4,000 feet elevations). The plant is found in the deserts, chaparral areas, foothills and yellow pine belts of California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico.
The commercial chia (S. hispánica) is native to Mexico and South America.
Christopher Nyerges is an educator and author of 22 books, several of which have chapters on the native chia plant. More information can be found at schoolofself-reliance.com.