Earth Notes: Dine' Native Plants Program

Jun 3, 2020

Mining, grazing, and drought have all taken a toll on land in the Southwest, including the Navajo Nation. Replanting the damaged landscape isn’t easy, because it’s difficult to find local seeds adapted to the region and climate.

Sumac seeds
Credit Dine Native Plants Program

That’s how the Diné Native Plants Program was born. Two years ago, a survey of Navajo tribal members revealed an unfulfilled need for native plants. Government agencies struggled to find seeds for restoration projects, and community members worried plants used for food, medicine, and ceremonies were becoming scarce.

Three botanists—Jesse Mike, Kelsey Jensen, and Nora Talkington—took action. They drove to distant reaches of the Navajo Nation to collect seeds in paper bags. With federal funding they set up a greenhouse and a seed lab in an unused warehouse in Fort Defiance. In germination experiments, the botanists rub seeds with sandpaper and soak them in water to learn the best way to grow native plants.

They’re growing thousands of seedlings for restoration projects, such as blue grama grass, alkali sacaton, and willow and cottonwood trees. The trees will be planted alongside streams in the Chuska Mountains to slow erosion and provide wildlife habitat.

The next goal is to grow culturally important plants, like Navajo tea or greenthread, used to make a medicinal drink. Plants used in ceremonies can’t be grown in a greenhouse; Navajos say finding the plant in the wild is where the healing begins. Instead these plants will be used in educational workshops.

The program’s vision is not only to protect vanishing species, but also preserve the cultural knowledge of the role these plants play in a sacred landscape.