Thursday, 26 April 2012

Chia (Salvia hispanica)

Chia (Salvia hispanica), also known as Mexican chia or salba, has a long history of use in South America and was a major food crop in pre-Columbian civilisations, particularly favoured by the Aztecs. There are actually over 60 different varieties and other species such as golden chia (S. columbariae) are grown and used in a similar way.

Chia (S. hispanica) growing in Kent

Health benefits

Chia comes from the Mayan word meaning 'something that makes you strong' and the health benefits of this plant have been known for a very long time. Chia seeds are gluten-free and contain essential fatty acids (including omega-3), protein, antioxidants, phytonutrients, vitamins, minerals and fibre. Chia are known to stabilise blood sugar levels as well as reduce cholesterol and blood pressure.

Growing Chia

Chia is an annual herbaceous plant growing to over a metre in height. Plants can be sown in March or April (now!) under cover and seeds should germinate within a couple of weeks. Chia can also be sown in the ground outside in May but this may reduce the chances of them flowering and setting seed (they may not anyway). Plants produce a prolific amount of leaves and should flower between July and August. They are frost tender and prefer a dry sunny position in the garden with just enough, but not too much, water. In the wild chia have adapted well to arid conditions and areas of low soil fertility. Chia is also known as a 'fire following' plant and thrives after foliage in the growing area has been burnt down.

Our seeds were raw and organic from a raw food supplier (can't remember which one) and were sown in March in pots and planted out amongst the water hungry cucumbers (not a good idea in hindsight) just after the last frosts. Plants were quite fragile and side stems broke off easily particularly during windy weather. In the end, the main stem had to be heavily staked and tied to stop it falling over. They did not flower (groan!) so we didn't obtain any seeds. This is really what we wanted and so were very disappointed. On the plus side these plants produce a massive amount of leaves, which have their own health benefits.

Possible problems

If harvesting seeds, care should be taken. Chia seeds are prone to absorb moisture. If this happens mould, yeast and salmonella can form inside the seed and be a possible health hazard. Commercial seeds are tested for safety. Home growers don't normally test for anything so this could be an issue.

To grow or not to grow

In conclusion, chia are easy to grow but will probably not produce flowers and set seed outside the sub-tropics. In the temperate climate of the British Isles we might get lucky if we start them off early indoors and we have a long hot summer (not looking very promising so far). However, the leaves (of which there are many) have their own health benefits and can be used fresh or dried to make a herbal tea.

Raw edible parts

Raw edible parts include the seeds which are mucilaginous and can be soaked to make a make a drink called 'fresca' or a dessert/porridge. They absorb many times their weight in water and soaked seeds can be very refreshing during hot weather. Seeds can also be eaten raw (like hemp seed) or sprouted. They can be used instead of (or with) flax seeds to make crispy raw crackers and breads. Chia seeds don't need to be ground down for digestion like flax seeds. The fresh or dried leaves can be made into a beneficial herbal tea.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Common Houseleek (Sempervivum tectorum)

The common houseleek (Sempervivum tectorum) is a hardy evergreen low growing perennial from the Crassulaceae family which has naturalised in the British Isles. Other names include thunder plant, liveforever, Jupiter's eye, Thor's beard, Aaron's rod and hens & chicks. It is very well known and often seen growing in dry shingle, old sinks, walls, roofs or rocky places. It has the ability to store a lot of water in its thick chubby leaves and so does well in increasingly dry areas of the country. Folklore tells us that it has the ability to protect a house from lightning and fire. Since it contains a large cache of water, there may be some truth in this.

Common Houseleek (Sempervivum tectorum)

Growing Houseleeks

Houseleeks are very easy to grow but do not like damp shady conditions so ensure they are planted out in a dry sunny position. These plants are very hardy and will survive extremes of weather including snow. They can be grown from seed but are more usually propagated from offsets which are little baby plants or 'chicks' that grow around the edge of the mother plant or 'hen'. These offsets are held in place by a flexible stolen or cord. The little babies can be gently prised away from the mother plant and potted on to become a fresh new plant. If growing from seed, sow the seeds on the top of compost in pots and cover with sand or grit. When the seedlings emerge they can be potted on and eventually planted outside. Houseleeks usually grow for several years before they produce a tall pink star shaped flower. They are monocarpic and plants will die after they flower. Flowers do set seed and will germinate naturally in garden soil producing new plants. However, plants readily cross pollinate and hybridisation is very common.

Raw Edible Parts

The young shoots and chubby leaves of this succulent are edible raw. They are crunchy and similar to cucumbers in taste and texture. The leaves can also be juiced to make a drink. Other species are not necessarily edible. This plant stores water in the leaves in a similar way to the aloe vera plant. In fact it can be used on sunburn or for other accidental burns in the same way. It is a good aloe vera substitute because it can be left to its own devices growing outside and is therefore easier to look after. In large doses the houseleek can be purgative and upset the tum so take it easy if trying it for the first time.