Navajo Spinach (Cleome Serrulata): Improving Seed Germination from Wild Populations Gathered across Native Lands of the Four Corners

Project Overview

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2017: $24,969.00
Projected End Date: 07/31/2018
Grant Recipient: Utah State University
Region: Western
State: Utah
Graduate Student:
Principal Investigator:
Dr. Daniel Drost
Utah State University

Annual Reports


  • Additional Plants: native plants
  • Animals: bees


  • Animal Production: feed/forage, herbal medicines, range improvement
  • Education and Training: extension, mentoring
  • Production Systems: general crop production
  • Sustainable Communities: local and regional food systems, sustainability measures

    Proposal abstract:

    In the past, Native American (Navajo, Zuni, and Hopi) communities of the Four Corners area extensively practiced traditional forms of pastoral (sheep) agriculture along with the cultivation of maize, beans, and squash. However, as these cultures became more integrated into western societies, some traditional agriculture practices have been abandoned. Today, about 50% of these Native Americans live in peri-urban or urban areas. The Navajo Nation is one of the largest reservations in the U.S. and surprisingly, in this region there are only 13 grocery stores (Kreed, 2015). For those not living in urban areas, many travel 50 to 100 miles to their nearest store. Morales (2015) reported that 80% of grocery store foods are “junk food” (highly processed foods) which are a leading cause of obesity and diabetes. In the Four Corners, obesity is three times the national average and one in three residents have diabetes (Morales, 2015). Poverty and malnutrition among Native Americans is a high priority focus of the USDA Food and Nutrition Service. In the flyer “Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR)”, it reported that $100+ million was set aside to purchase healthy foods and fresh fruits and vegetables for distribution on reservations (USDA-FNS, 2013). A focused efforts on re-establishing local food production of traditional crops and to explore underutilized food sources of historically significance is required. Native American communities want to reestablish their historic sustainable agriculture practices. In 2015, The Navajo Nation passed the Junk Food Tax (estimated revenue, $2 to $3 million/years) with funds used to establish farming enterprises across the reservation (Morales, 2015). Other tribes in the Four Corners Area have similar interest as the Navajo. They desire more traditional agricultural farms, want to preserve religious traditions, and learn the agricultural practices of the elders. Recent surveys show a need to promote sustainable agricultural practices on Reservations to preserve the local history, culture, and socio-economic nuances of the tribes (Hart, 2006; Singletary and Emm, 2007). The Rocky Mountain Bee Plant (Cleome serrulata), also called Navajo Spinach, is widely found in the Four Corners region and has historical significance to the Navajo, Hopi, and Zuni. Young plants were commonly used as a leafy vegetable, older leaves and stems were used to make traditional medicines, the seeds were eaten raw or mixed in breads, and the stems, flowers, and seeds provided colored dyes for rugs, baskets and pottery. The focus of this project is to 1) better understand the germination and early growth of C. serrulata from distinct populations found across the Four Corners region of the Southwestern U.S. and 2) to begin compiling a record of its historic uses.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    As an undergraduate Plant Science major at Utah State University, I became interested in research that could facilitate and maintain the production and use of historically important plants found across the Four Corners area of the Southwestern U.S. My Navajo grandparents told stories of wild gathered plants important in our culture. Navajo Spinach (Cleome serrulata) is one such plant. This current project is to expand my preliminary studies on the germination and growth of Navajo Spinach as a specialty crop for the native people of the Four Corners.


    1. Collect Navajo Spinach from unique locations across the Navajo, Hopi, and Zuni reservations. With funding from an Undergraduate Research grant at Utah State University, I collected Navajo Spinach seeds from Chinle, Arizona and Zuni, New Mexico and compared them to commercially available seeds. Seeds collected near Zuni did not germinate while seeds from Chinle had the highest % germination when chilled for four weeks at 4C. No seeds from any location germinated at 20C. Commercial seed germinated at a lower percentage than the Chinle seed. Results suggest there are seed dormancy issues and seeds collected from different areas (biotypes) have different germination requirements. We found scarified seeds did not germinate as well as non-scarified seeds. We need to collect seeds from more regions (biotypes) to test these hypotheses.
    2. Determine germination and growth requirements of Navajo Spinach seeds. My early research illustrated that we don’t know much about seed germination and dormancy issues in Navajo Spinach. Further work on the germination response to temperature, scarification requirements, and evaluating approved seed treatments to enhance germination are warranted. These are the tools growers, gardeners, and others interested in Navajo Spinach can use to grow the plant.
    3. Explore the Historical Practices, Cultural Uses, and Preservation Techniques of Navajo Spinach. Develop a comprehensive collection of information on Navajo Spinach gathering including its use as a vegetable, of mature plants as dye and paint sources, and seed collection and storage commonly used for bread making. These collections will include a summary of written historical references, the collection of oral histories from tribal elders, and details of dye and paint making.
    4. Develop outreach products relevant to Navajo Spinach. Educational products and activities will include a seed collection and seed treatments/storage practices demonstration videos, presentations of findings and educational posters for local Chapter Houses, and research and extension publications. Materials developed will be accessible on Extension websites (USU and Navajo), and distributed at state, regional, and national conferences.
    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.