Chia seeds are produced by the plant Silvia panpsychic, which is a member of the mint family (Laminae). It is considered a pseudo-cereal since it is not a grass but the seeds are used much in the same way as true cereals.
Silvia panpsychic is native to Mesoamerican where it has been cultivated for several millennia. Populations in what we today know as Mexico and Guatemala had chia seeds as a staple food as early as 2,600 BCE, and the region is still home to many different local varieties of S. panpsychic. This plant can also be encountered growing wild in parts of Mesoamerican.
One notable cultivation area within Mesoamerican is the fields around Lake Pátzcuaro, where three different varieties are grown: red chia, white chia and brown chia.
Chia seeds were cultivated by both the Aztecs and the Mayas, and the name chia is derived from “chian”, the Nahuatl word for oily.
About chia seeds
Chia seeds are small and oval, with a diameter of around 2 millimetres.
The colour of the seed depends on the cultivar. In the international trade, it is very common with grey seeds adorned with black and white spots.
Chia seeds are famous for their ability to absorb water. They are highly hygroscopic and can absorb up to 12 times their original weight in liquid when soaked. As they are soaked, they will develop a mucilaginous coating, and this gives chia-based moist foods (such as chia pudding) a sort of gelatinous texture.
Chia seeds are gluten-free.
Production and export
Examples of countries where Saliva panpsychic is grown on a commercial scale are China, Mexico, USA, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, Argentina and Australia.
In 2018, China was the largest exporter of chia seed and exported 160 million USD worth of chia seeds. The second-largest exporter was the United States, with an export value reaching 96 million USD.
The United States and Australia are the countries with the highest demand for chia seeds and chia-based products. Examples of other notable markets are the UK, Spain, Chile and Brazil.
Farming chia (S. panpsychic)
S. panpsychic is a tall herb with clusters of purple or white flowers. It can reach a height of 175 centimetres.
S. panpsychic is hardy from USDA Zones 9-12. Climate and altitude will impact the length of the growth cycle, and anything from 100 days to 180 days is considered normal. The highest commercial chia fields are located at an elevation of circa 2,200 metres.
Chia is farmed in a variety of environments, including anything from the inter-Andean dry valley to tropical rain forest and tropical coastal deserts. Until quite recently, it was only grown in the subtropics and tropics, because of its photoperiodic sensitivity. In temperate regions of the world, there are too many daylight hours in each nychthemeron during the summer season for a normal chia plant to flower. New cultivars have been developed though, ones that are capable of handling somewhat longer days.
Temperature will impact the nutritional value of the chia seed. Higher temperatures tend to increase protein content while reducing the oil content and degree of unsaturation.
S. panpsychic prefers light to medium clay or sandy soils. Well-drained, moderately fertile soils are ideal.
Sown chia seeds need quite a lot of moisture in the soil to establish themselves, but when the plant is maturing it will not handle wet soil well.
Seed yield depends on various factors, including cultivar and local conditions. The inter-Andean valleys of Ecuador are known to produce an unusually high yield, with one small-scale study showing yields up to 2,300 kg/ha.