While visiting Oaxaca, Mexico in August, I was delighted to discover a table of Chia Pets made by a local potter. I had headed to Santa Maria del Tule to visit the famed tree on my way to explore Mitla. El Tule, as it is known, is a Montezuma cypress and this particular one has the world’s largest trunk in circumference measuring in at 119 feet and with a diameter of 38.1 feet. In 2001, El Tule has been placed on a tentative list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It is truly an impressive tree and really needs to be seen in person as no photograph really does justice to its magnificence.
Many tourists come to Santa Maria del Tule to visit the tree. There is a beautiful church there to its side and businesses have sprung up in the area to cater to the tourists. Across from the park surrounding the tree was a small carnival set up with rides for children, the Diversiones Lopez. It was still early in the day and nothing had opened up yet. I always enjoy checking out and photographing fairs in other countries so I had headed over to see the attractions. And there, across from a motionless ride, was the Chia table.
Ch-ch-ch-chias had entered my life in the 70’s when I was bombarded by the commercials around Christmas time as a highly impressionable child. It was fun, each year, to see what new figure was going to be available. I liked the rapid frame progression of chia growth in the ad. It seemed to promise hours of entertainment with a new Chia Pet much like the high expectations I had from my Sea Monkeys though they had never quite lived up to the hype. So that morning in Santa Maria del Tule, when I found a table full of authentic Chia pets, I had that same mixture of childlike wonder and expectation like they had just been discovered as a present under the Christmas tree. I remember climbing back into the van and telling my local guide, Raul, that I had just bought an actual Chia Pet and being surprised that he wasn’t as impressed as I was. What I had never considered before was that Chia Pets had an origin outside of Rite-Aid drug stores. And I had just stumbled upon the Chia Pets homeland.
Chia Pets can trace their origin back to the long tradition of pottery and ornamental gardening in Mexico. You can find many different pots in gardens today that are in the shape of animals. While doing research on Chia Pets, I came across a fantastic blog post at The Holy Enchilada called Sacred Fluids: The Real History of Chia Pets. I have provided the link so you can check it out and learn more. The Holy Enchilada traces traditional hanging planters called pichanchas as well as the Altar of Sorrows to be the forebearers of the Chia Pet. Chia is from the Nahautl words meaning “something close to or under water.” Despite their Mexican origin, the Chia Pets you can buy in America are now made in Ch-ch-ch-China!
Joe Pedott is the marketing genius behind the Chia Pet, as you know it. His company, Joseph Enterprises, Inc. first introduced the Chia Pet to America in 1977 after he had discovered it for sale in a Chicago housewares show. He had the vision to see that the Chia Pet had the potential to be a great gift item and he bought the rights from the vendor at the fair. The Chia Pet was not his only success as he is also the person who brought us “The Clapper.” The Chia Pet is only sold during the holidays with sales around 500,000 each year. It comes in many forms from traditional animals as well as licensed Chia like Mr. T or Bart Simpson. Another popular Chia has been the Barrack Obama Chia, part of the Proud to Be American series. Now a traditional part of American culture, Chia Pets joined the archived collection at the Smithsonian in 2003.
Chia Pets are made from hollow, terra cotta pottery. Their large torso or head, depending on the figure, is grooved to allow the chia seeds to stick to the figure while they grow and mature. Chia seeds are actually Salvia hispanica. When they sprout, they form a gel like coating called mucilage that help the seeds to stick to the moist pottery. Chia seeds have a new following today as a nutritional supplement. Chia seeds, both whole or ground, can be added to fruit drinks, snack foods, cereals and added to baked goods or sprinkled on yogurt. They are grown in Mexico or Bolivia and are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, protein and fiber.
Chia pets have become such a staple in our society that they have even spawned a fake news story had some people fueled. Over at GetOdd.com, they claimed that illegal chia dumping was creating a potential ecological disaster of Wild Chia. You can check out the hilarious details at Chia Pets Threaten New Mexico. So, if you do pick up a Chia Pet this holiday season, make sure to dispose of it responsibly so you, too, do not contribute to the Wild Chia epidemic!
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Photo Credit: Chia Obama from democraticunderground.com