Chia Plant: Sage's Seedier Cousin

Chia seeds are a superfood full of omega-3 fatty acids. People buy chia seeds to add protein to their favorite dishes or to use as an egg replacement in a vegan diet. Chia sprouts are also widely used in the kitchen. Luckily, chia seeds come from the chia plant, which is easy to care for once you've taken off!

Whether you eat chia seeds or not, growing chia plants brings all sorts of health benefits to your garden too. Chia flowers are beautiful, and chia plants grow in a variety of conditions. They have virtually no pests or diseases and a long growing season, so you can enjoy the leaves and flowers of this beautiful plant longer than you might expect.

Chia is an easy addition to outdoor gardens from the southeastern United States to Central America and even South America. It's also great in a greenhouse in areas where winters are cold and harsh. It can also be grown as a small tree in homes.

If you're interested in growing a chia plant for health benefits, here's an opportunity to save you a trip to the health food store. Let's talk about growing Chia!

Quick care instructions

Chia plants can be decorative and produce edible seeds. Source: Johannes and Anni

Common name(s)Chia, Chian, Mexican Chia, Mexican Sage, Golden Chia, Desert Chia
Scientific nameSalvia hispanica, Salvia columbariae
days until harvest120 days from germination
Brightfull sun
water1 inch per week
floorAverage, well draining
fertilizerRich fertilizer when planting, light foliar fertilization
Diseasesroot rot

All about chia

chia flowersSpiky chia flowers in full color. Source: Dawn Endico

Two important chia species are found in home gardens: Salvia hispanica (or Mexican chia, Mexican sage, Spanish sage) and Salvia columbariae (or the golden chia plant, desert chia). Both belong to the mint family (Lamiaceae), which includes mint, deadnettle, and all kinds of sage. Chia is grown for its seeds, which are used in baked goods, overnight oats, and even beverages. The leaves are also eaten, but more so when they are young than microgreens. As the leaves mature, they become slightly bitter, making them preferable in earlier stages.

The chia plant is native to central Mexico and Guatemala. Indigenous people there and in what is now the southeastern United States used the plant as food and medicine even before Colombian colonization. Many different peoples cultivated chia and still do. Nahuatl, Maya, Inca and Aztec developed the chia varieties we know today. The Native American root word for chia, chian, has different meanings for different people. In Mayan cosmology, Chian means strength while in Nahuatl people it means oily.

Chia grows up to 6 feet tall annually and spreads 18 inches wide. The 1 to 2 inch wide leaves grow like those of mint family plants, opposite the central square stem. They are covered with small hairs. Chia flowers bloom in shades of blue in late spring to early summer. The petals form semi-flowers that attract native bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. Flowers are self-pollinating. As the flowers bloom and die, seed heads dry and white and brown seeds mature inside. When all the petals are gone from the plant, tiny seeds can be harvested. Like other plants in the mint family, chia roots are flat. And chia seeds self-seed and come back year after year.

Chia seeds are packed with omega-3 fatty acids and have other health benefits. They support healthy blood sugar levels, good bone density and weight loss efforts. They are also used to reduce the risk of heart disease and stabilize blood pressure. Chia sprouts are well known to those born in the last two decades and further back due to the popularization of the chia pet, in which chia seeds were spread on a clay figurine and grew into fun shapes that included Bob Ross' hair .

types of chia

There are clear botanical differences between Salvia hispanica and columbariae. While the Hispanica variety has flower spikes, Columbariae has 1 to 2 clustered flowers that look a lot like bee balm. Hispanica seed color is usually black and brown. These are the organic chia seeds that you will most likely find at the health food store. The seeds of the golden species are light brown and grey. Another clear difference is the climate that each species prefers. While Hispanica thrives in wetter areas, Columbariae prefers dry desert conditions. Both plants have nutritional benefits and can be used to support blood pressure and are just as good in chia pudding. In terms of usage for both types of chia seeds, it is almost the same plant. White flowers are also common among the Hispanica species. Golden strains tend to have small blue to purple flower heads.

plant chia

Growing chia plants is easy as long as you have managed to get them working via chia seeds. Start by planting chia seeds in the fall. You can start them inside or outside in your garden bed. The trick to sprouting chia seeds is to hydrate them enough so that they form the gelatinous shell they are known for. Then use a popsicle to disperse a few seeds evenly on surface soil or in clay soil outdoors or in small pots. You can simply plant the seeds individually, but they will take much longer to germinate if they are not fully hydrated. Keep the soil moist and they will germinate within a few weeks.

If you are growing chia and growing seeds indoors, transplant them when they are small plants 3 inches tall. They will thrive when planted in an area where they have enough room to grow into a large bush or small tree about 5 feet tall. Most guides recommend planting at least 6 inches apart. Give them an area with good drainage, full sun and soil that will hold some moisture.


formation of chia flowersA chia flower in early stages of development. Source: Grabbart

So you've studied how to spread or scatter chia seeds on the earth. Now let's talk about caring for your chia plants.

sun and temperature

Chia plants enjoy areas of full direct sunlight, about 6 to 8 hours a day. Chia plants also enjoy USDA zones 8 through 11. Temperatures from 61 degrees Fahrenheit to 79 degrees are optimal for growing chia plants. Outside of their USDA zones, chia plants can be grown in greenhouses and indoors. Chia plants also tolerate temperatures of up to 51 degrees and up to 96 degrees. Freezing temperatures are harsh on the chia plant, and prolonged freezing will kill outdoor plants. However, they self-seed and return the following spring when they have had a chance to set seed. In high triple-digit heat, chia will scorch and slow bud production. A shade cloth can help chia plants in moments of higher heat.

water and moisture

Water chia plants regularly in the morning, especially during the warmer months. Once the chia plant is well established, you can reduce regular watering. Because these plants are drought tolerant, they will do just fine once they settle into their new home. The best form of irrigation for growing chia seeds is drip irrigation. Drip lines are also satisfactory forms of irrigation. If it rained too much in early summer or late spring, don't add more water as this can rot the roots of the chia plants.


Grow chia seeds in soil that is average to loamy. The key trick to growing chia seeds effectively is to provide plants with well-drained soil that can easily wick moisture and nutrients through the roots. Although sometimes a desert plant, chia can survive in other soil types. If you live in an area with compacted soil, try adding a small amount of garden or potting soil with sand to the soil to provide a little extra drainage. Although chia is well adapted to many different pH ranges, it prefers slightly acidic soil in a range of 6.5 to 8.5.


Chia is sensitive to too much fertilization. The best way to provide these plants with nutrients is to give them a good amount of healthy compost or well-rotted manure when you plant them. Once these plants are fully grown, give these plants a diluted full spectrum foliar feed with an NPK of 1.5-2.2-1.5 no more than once or twice during their vegetative period.


If you don't want the small white and brown seeds to self-seed, you can skip harvesting chia and let the flowers die off after the petals die off. You can also prune sprouts after seeding them densely to use in salads and sandwiches. Young leaves can be removed to be eaten like spinach. But aside from harvesting for seed, these plants do not require pruning. Removing the flower heads will remove all seeds, reduce seed yield and prevent chia from returning the following spring.


Chia seeds are the only way of propagating the chia plant. Simply sow the seed heads after they die in the fall, or remove the seed heads and plant the seeds in the garden bed after you have had time to soak them in water and let them form their mucous film. You can do the same indoors. See the Planting Chia section for more information.

Harvesting and Storage

Chia flower closeupEach tiny chia flower forms the later seed head. Source: PYHOOYA

You've done the job of growing many plants from your chia seeds. Now it's time for the payout! Let's talk about harvesting the seeds of this beautiful plant.


You can easily harvest seeds just after the flowers die off on clusters and spikes. Leaves are ready as soon as they are ripe. Harvest sprouts with a sharp knife when they are only a few inches tall. Do this throughout the growing season and don't let the heads brown too much, which can affect seed yield. Remove the entire seed head and shake it. If you can hear the seeds inside, it's time to extract them. Cut the heads off the stalk and place them on a drying rack. Alternatively, you can let them dry in paper bags for a few days.

Commercial seed growers have mechanical ways of extracting seeds. At home, you can simply crush the seed head and blow away the crushed material, leaving only the seeds. Do this by hand or with a fan. Note that there will be quite a bit of cleanup, so extracting seeds outdoors may be better. Some commercial growers then sift their seeds through a sieve to remove any residue.


Fresh and dried chia seeds do best in an airtight glass or plastic container. Mason jars are preferable. In a cool, dark place like this, they'll last 5 years. You can keep them in the fridge to extend their shelf life a bit. You can vacuum seal them and put them in the freezer to keep them for 5 to 10 years. Prepared chia flour or chia gel (seeds soaked in water) will keep in an airtight container in the refrigerator for a few weeks. Chia gel is a great addition to healthy drinks like chia fresca. Chia leaves should be eaten immediately or stored in a plastic bag between paper towels in the refrigerator and consumed within a few days.


chia leavesThe shape of the chia leaves is very appealing. Source: johnpaulgoguen

Chia plants have virtually no pests or diseases. However, there are a few growing conditions that will harm the plant. Let's cover these.

growing problems

Since these plants are drought tolerant, lack of water is often not a problem. However, they are sensitive to extreme heat and can scorch when subjected to an extended heat wave. Give the plant a little more water at this point. Also plants placed in an area with bad drainage could be more susceptible to disease. A good foundation will prevent growth problems around this uncomplicated plant.


This plant has practically no pests.


root rot is a fungal condition that develops when chia has been planted in media that does not drain well. You can try removing the plant and transplanting it into fresh soil with some sand. This might shock the plant, and it risks going too far and dying, but this trick might help it get by in the long run. In the worst case, in this case you will have to wait for the next spring to enjoy a full harvest. You may want to remove seed heads and germinate them elsewhere while you solarize the diseased soil next season. A cover crop like buckwheat could help break the disease cycle in the meantime.

frequently asked Questions

Chia frogMost people know chia seeds for these fun projects. Source: wholeoman

Q: Can you eat chia plants?

A: Indeed! They are nutritious in the form of sprouts, leaves and seeds.

Q: How long does it take to grow chia seeds?

A: After seed germination, you will have a harvest in about 4 months.

Q: What happens when you plant chia seeds?

A: You get sprouts that can be used for salads and sandwiches, or a full-size plant that can be harvested for leaves or seeds. Alternatively, planting them on clay or terracotta will give you a chia pet!

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