Monthly Archives: March 2016

The Charm of Desert Chia

A patch of desert chia (Salvia columbariae) inviting pollinators….

A patch of desert chia (Salvia columbariae) inviting pollinators….(MABurgess photo)

It is happening right now in desert gardens and up desert arroyo beds–the visual surprise of desert chia! But you have to look twice, as they can be elusive.

Tia Marta here to share some thoughts about a very important little desert ephemeral.  Salvia columbariae, brought on by winter rains, is spreading its lovely ground-hugging rosettes and beginning to send up its wand-like square flower stalks to greet pollinators with spherical clusters of deep blue flowerlets–almost appearing “ultraviolet” to our eyes.

Chia’s foliage itself is a wonder.  If you get down on hands and knees with a magnifier, you’ll see a most knobby green terrain-of-a-leaf.  Pinch the leaf and a luscious bouquet arises.  Oh if we could capture that scent!  It would make a lovely lotion.

A rosette of beautiful desert chia with its scented, intaglio foliage--Wishing this were a squeeze-and-sniff photo!

A rosette of beautiful desert chia with its scented, intaglio foliage–Wishing this were a squeeze-and-sniff photo! (MABurgess photo)

Humans are funny in that when we see wildflowers emerge in the spring, as they are now, we HAVE TO HAVE THEM in our gardens!  Well, if we want them now, we should have planted the seeds last fall!  Put it on your calendar right away–on the October page–to buy those chia seeds and plant them at the beginning of October when the nights turn cool.  Or, if you are into instant gratification, if you need a quick wildflower fix, there just might be a plant sale this weekend somewhere in Tucson, AZ, where they will have potted chia starts ready to put in the ground–to give you a show, and a harvest, before hot weather sets in.  If you like to gamble, you could rake in some seeds this month and chances are the seeds (which have built-in DNA smarts) will wait until fall rains come to germinate, as their germination-triggers are attuned to cool/wet conditions; amazingly, hot summer rains  won’t tempt them out of seed dormancy.

Balls of spiny seedheads climb the square stems of these mint-family wonders, as long as moisture lasts.

Balls of spiny seedheads climb the square stems of these mint-family wonders, as long as cool moisture lasts. (MABurgess photo)


Close-up of desert chia in flower--note the sphere of tiny flowers (JRMondt photo)

Close-up of desert chia in flower–note the sphere of tiny flowers (JRMondt photo)

Check out the Plant Sale THIS WEEKEND–March 11-13–at the NativeSeeds/SEARCH store, 3061 N Campbell Ave, Tucson, for starts of several spring ephemerals–maybe even chia.  There is still time to get them planted to enjoy their color and later their seeds.

And, take a walk up any arroyo–Yetman Trail or King Canyon in the Tucson Mountains, Pima Canyon or Finger Rock Canyon into the Catalinas, or trails in Catalina State Park–for a chance to see a patch of desert chia in bloom.

Double desert chia seedhead (JRMondt photo)

Double desert chia seedhead (JRMondt photo)

About April and May, when the days are getting hot and dry, return to your patch of chia to find straw-colored spiny balls dancing on slender dry stalks, usually calf-high, sometimes knee-high, or, after a wet winter/spring, perhaps thigh-high.  Try to find them just after they dry before the breeze has battered them and scattered their seed.  With a strong paper sack (or a canvas bag that you can wash later to soften the spiny bracts that will get stuck in the fabric), gather the seedheads and crush them.  Bare hands or soft-gloved hands BEWARE!  Best to use leather gloves for gathering seedheads.


Dry stalks and spiny seed heads of desert chia (MABurgess photo)

Dry stalks and spiny seedheads of desert chia (MABurgess photo)

In earlier times, Native Peoples may have used baskets shaped like combs to pass through patches of chia seedheads to gather many at a time.  There are records of Cocopa and Chemehuevi people of the Colorado Desert storing large ollas full of chia seed.  When you see how tiny the seeds are and realize how much work it is to harvest an olla of chia seed, the time and effort must have been astounding–but they KNEW how important this food is!  When chia was ready, the whole village had to be out there gathering, making the most of the short window of opportunity.

The nutrition of chia–both our native desert chia and the Aztec chia, Salvia hispanicum–is way up there among the super-foods.  Packed in the tiny seeds is a big percentage of omega-3 fatty acids.  In addition, chia contains complex carbs which give lots of sustained energy, like slow-release fertilizer–a great food for athletes.  These same carbs balance blood sugar, providing a gift to hypoglycemics or diabetics.

Taste the glorious nutrition of a chia-mesquite-berry smoothie! (MABurgess photo)

Taste the glorious nutrition of a chia-mesquite-berry smoothie! (MABurgess photo)

Chia Mesquite Berry Smoothie Recipe

1 Tbsp chia seed, and a pinch for garnish

1 cup apple or cranberry juice

2 tsp mesquite meal (optional, and delicious)

1 cup frozen blueberries or raspberries (or other favorite berry)

1 cup vanilla yogurt (or 1 cup plain yogurt and 2 tsp agave nectar)

ice optional

Soak 1 T chia seed in a cup of apple juice or other fruit juice for 5-10 minutes.  Then combine all other ingredients in a blender.  Pulse until all ingredients are mixed. Pour into 2 big glasses, sprinkle top with a pinch of chia seed, and enjoy with a pal!


Tarahumara Chia and Desert Chia are available in seed packets and seed mixtures from NativeSeeds/SEARCH.

Tarahumara Chia and Desert Chia are available in seed packets and seed mixtures from NativeSeeds/SEARCH.

You can visit the NativeSeeds/SEARCH online catalog or visit the one-of-a-kind store on North Campbell Avenue to find the right seeds for your garden.  They have Tarahumara chia, the one made famous by the Raramuri native runners of the Sierra Madre.  NSS also has every wildflower mix containing desert chia, for spring garden showiness or benefits to wildlife.  Come by the Flor de Mayo booth at StPhilips Farmers Market for ideas for using chia and a pinch to try for yourself.  For learning more about seed saving, try a class at NativeSeeds/SEARCH.

The gifts of chia–from the visual and olfactory, to the culinary and the medicinal–are many, and even magical.  We can participate in spreading their wealth of beauty and benefit by planting and harvesting, saving their seeds and passing them along with hope and intent….

Categories: Sonoran Native | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

On the Transformational Power of a Humble Pot



View inside a  clay cooking pot made in Sonora, Mexico. Hand crafted several years ago, by an elder woman who digs the clay herself; each March.

Aunt Linda here this still, cool morning in the Old Pueblo. Today’s post is inspired by the tiny pots I discovered when removing a birdhouse filled with wasps, instead of  baby birds. Wearing my bee veil I safely peeked inside – immediately mesmerized by the sight of beautifully crafted, tiny mud pots. Potter Wasps I wondered?  And what on earth do they DO with these pots? I began to research these tiny pots.  English naturalist John Crompton  described them as “vases of earthenware that the Greeks might have envied.”


Tiny mud pots

Eric Grissell, in his book BEES, WASPS, and GARDENS writes “unlike many wasps that simply place their egg on the prey or at the bottom of a cell, potter wasps suspend their eggs by a thread from the top of the pot. When it hatches, the wasp larva is hanging directly over it’s supper, and it remains attached safely to it’s line until the first caterpillar or two is consumed, then it is bold enough to drop down and feast among it’s hosts. Apparently, the reason for this odd behavior is that female potter wasps only partially paralyze their hosts, which are still capable of some movement. A tiny wasp larva might be crushed if it had no way to retreat from its twitching dinner plate, so it essentially becomes a trapeze artist.”(p177)

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insect potter in action

Potter Wasps may not cook per se; but they do collect mud, shape pots, and provide meals  in those pots for their larva. Which gets me thinking about pots. And how humans feed – and have fed ourselves – over time. How might such a simple thing as a fired clay pot have transformed our  lives?


Simple Cook pot whose “insides” are shown in the top photo. 

Research offered by Michael Pollan in his book COOKED fascinates me. Before the technology of fired clay cooking pots humans heated stones (found in archaeological sites as ‘burned stones’) and fired clay balls. These “cooking stones” were added to the water held in animal skins or watertight baskets (which were not fire proof; that would come later with firing clay) to boil water. Boiling water – another thing we take for granted – allowed humans to transform previously inedible foods edible. This opened wide up our culinary and nutritional world – and seeds, nuts, grains, sometimes rendering some toxic plants safe to eat.

Pollan writes “the cook pot is a kind of second stomach, and external organ of digestion” … “these auxiliary clay stomachs made it possible for humans to thrive on a diet of stored dry seeds which in turn led to the accumulation of wealth, the division of labor, and the rise of civilization. These developments are usually credited to the rise of agriculture, and rightly so, but they depend as much on the cook pot as on the plow.” (154)


Stew forming with vegetables and, yes you saw right,  some chicken feet; no part goes unused.

Todays Recipe is to add some reverence for the deceptively simple cook pot – (as well as for the act of boiling water) – to your very favorite ingredients. There is no need to use a clay pot; nor to even get complicated. You might add this reverence to making a pot of beans, your grandmothers favorite soup or stew, or even to jam making.




Categories: Cooking, Gardening, Sonoran Native, Uncategorized | Tags: , , | 4 Comments

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