Origin: Rarámuri people (Sierra Tarahumara), via Delaware Valley
Improvement status: Landrace
Seeds per packet: ~50
Germination tested 1/2022: 70%
Life cycle: Annual
EFN INTRODUCTION. NEW FOR 2022. The word "chia" is said to come from a Mayan word for strength. It is commonly applied to the seeds of a number of species in the sage family (Lamiaceae), most commonly Salvia hispanica, which have long been widely consumed across Mesoamerica. The chia seeds that have become incredibly popular as a "superfood" over the past decade or two (and the famous "chia pet" seeds) are all Salvia hispanica, but due to day-length sensitivity that species only begins flowering in most of the United States just before frost (if at all), so it always fails to produce seeds.
The Rarámuri people of northern Mexico (called Tarahumara by the Spanish) collect wild seeds from a different chia species, Salvia tiliaefolia. It's quite similar to conventional chia, but has slightly smaller seeds and a slightly different leaf shape. The leaves are edible, with a minty, mildly sage-like flavor, most commonly utilized for tea, but also with culinary uses. Rarámuri chia leaves make a great pesto! The plant also has beautiful blue flowers which pollinators love.
Rarámuri people are well-known for their sandal-clad long-distance running abilities, and they are said to credit chia as their main source of energy on famous long-distance runs. Chia has long been an important source of nutrition for indigenous people in northern Mexico.
Remarkably, since our first attempt at growing it, Rarámuri chia has always grown pretty well in the Delaware Valley, and at least a few plants have always set viable seeds for us just before frost. And now, after roughly a decade of selecting for earliness, and as the plant has naturalized in our field (and at a friend's farm in Philadelphia), almost all of the plants in this population now reliably set at least some seed before frost arrives. Nate originally got these Rarámuri chia seeds (as "Tarahumara Chia") from Native Seeds/SEARCH in Tucson, Arizona.
We believe earlier-ripening chia is an important project, not merely to develop a new crop for northern growers, but to ensure that chia remains affordable and accessible to the people for whom it is a culturally important crop. As we've seen with quinoa, when a global market develops for a traditionally important indigenous crop, it's possible for ballooning prices to exceed what the average chia consumer can pay in the places where it was first developed and is most beloved. We are particularly worried about this with chia, since giant agri-business companies have not only begun producing it in enormous quantities in places like California, but also buying it up from growers in Mexico.
You can play a part in this project by trying it even farther north than Philadelphia, and by saving seeds from any plants that mature. Perhaps we'll achieve a fully "day-neutral" someday. As these seeds were originally sourced from the wild in Chihuahua, there is still quite a bit of diversity. The seeds we're selling this year come primarily from the now naturalized populations at the EFN flagship farm in Elmer, NJ, and our friends' farm in Philadelphia.
25% of the proceeds of these seeds will be donated to the Alianza Sierra Madre, a civil society organization that, in their words, "accompanies [supports] the indigenous peoples and communities of the Sierra Tarahumara in the exercise of their human and collective rights, and the conservation and restoration of their natural and cultural assets, for the overall well-being of their communities."