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Ask Dr. Knowledge

What are the seeds that grow green “fur’’ on Chia Pets?

January 24, 2011

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This may be a frivolous question, but what are the seeds that grow green “fur’’ on Chia Pets?

This is more interesting than you might have guessed. Chia Pet novelties started in 1982, when Joseph Enterprises of San Francisco introduced a pottery ram with grooves, where chia seeds could be placed to grow leaves and give the appearance of green “wool.’’ A wide variety of figures made to use chia seeds have since become available.

Chia is a type of sage — not the Salvia officinalis used in the kitchen, but one called Salvia hispanica. There are more than 700 species of sage, including white sage, or Salvia apiana, a popular incense. But the seeds have other uses than growing Chia Pets: They are nutritious.

The plant is native to Mexico and Guatemala, where it is believed to have been cultivated since Aztec times. Its name derives from “chian,’’ the word for oily in Nahuatl, the language spoken by the Aztecs. The seeds contain oil, in particular omega-3 fatty acids, making them a good source for people who don’t want to eat oily fish.

They are also rich in protein, minerals, and fiber, and are gaining popularity with athletes as a sort of superfood. They are versatile and can be eaten raw, ground into flour and cooked, or allowed to sprout and used as an alternative to alfalfa sprouts.

The seeds also do something interesting in water: They soak up nearly 10 times their volume and swell to make a gel. A sort of slimy, gelatinous, but remarkably refreshing drink can be made, called iskiate by the Tarahumara tribe of Mexico, or chia fresca in Spanish.

The seed is also grown in Argentina, Australia, and Ecuador. You may well see a lot more of it in coming years, and not just on Chia Pets.

Ask Dr. Knowledge is written by Northeastern University physicist John Swain. E-mail questions to drknowledge@globe.com or write to Dr. Knowledge, c/o The Boston Globe, PO Box 55819, Boston, MA 02205-5819.

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