Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Chias! It's a salvia


Who would have thought? Chia comes from Salvia columbariae, Salvia hispanica or Salvia polystachya, better known as sages and belonging to the mint family (Lamiaceae). Although unlike our amenity or culinary sages, these species are annuals.

Let's call them Chia Sage, as many do. Native to western North America, Chia Sage has been long harvested as a source of 'pseudo-cereal'. While Mediterraneans plucked the aromatic leaves from their sage, the Aztecs and Mayans gathered its seed.

Hernán Cortés - 'the killer' as portrayed by Neil Young - sent chia back to Spain but its use in the Americas was severely curtailed after the arrival of the Spanish. According to one source, Agua de chia (chia water) was, until the recent revival, the only remaining use of chia in the local diet.

Now of course the whole world is mad for chia. At least for now. It joins quinoa, kale and blueberries as so-called superfads - sorry, superfoods. To support its status I can report it is packed full of omega fatty acids, soluble dietary fibre and various proteins and minerals. All of which are probably good for you but as yet with no conclusive scientific support.

For me the most exciting thing about chia is the gel formed when you soak the seeds in water. Soluble fibres in the seed coat combine with the water to produce a goo of sago-like texture. That goo (along with the rest of suspended seed) contains plenty of fat and dietary fibre.

So yet another fascinating side story about Salvia to join the Brown Salvia, the Andean Silver-leaf Sage and Meadow Clary in the Talking Plants pantheon, only one of which is illustrated among the salvias below.




And while I'm here, I've been advised on the best authority (a friend of a friend) that the next superfood from the mint family will be the Shiso or Beefsteak Plant, Perilla frustecens. I remember seeing, and photographing, this plant a few years ago in the Milson Community Garden, Kirribilli, where I interviewed Yumi Sakauchi for Talking Plants on RN.


Just in case you are wondering, Quinoa is a chenopod (in the salt-bush family) from South America, an entirely different and unrelated pseudo-cereal, and, sigh, superfood.

PS: Paul Ward, via Facebook (6 February 2018) adds: Basil seeds are popularly used in SE Asia for drinks in a similar way that chia is used. Soaked basil seeds form a mucilage around their seeds. The mucilage formed on the seeds of clary sage ( S. sclaria) has been used in Europe for removing foreign objects from the eyes. A seed is put into ones eye, and the mucilage attaches to the grit or whatever is caught in the eye. And is then easily removed.

Images: At the top is a picture of Salvia columbariae taken by Gary A. Monroe, hosted by the USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database. The other images are from my own photograph collection: the Shiso from Milson Community Garden; a close up of Salvia canariensis from Gran Canaria (Spain); Salvia pratensis in the seed orchard at Wakehurst Place (Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, UK); and the salvia border at Kew Gardens (Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, UK).

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