by LJ Hodek-Creapeau, Circkles Managing Editor
You will probably not even notice this “weed” until it blossoms. We have them growing in only select areas of Colorado. The bee plant looks like any other ordinary weed, until it flowers; then it is a bouquet of beautiful lavender and humming with bees. That makes this “weed” worth establishing in your yard if possible.
The only challenge to growing bee plants is first, you can’t find the seed in just any seed catalog, and second, it is picky about germination conditions.
Technically labeled as Rocky Mountain Bee Plant, it is also known as Navajo spinach, stinkweed and skunk weed or skunk plant due to the unpleasant aroma the leaves give off if you rub them. One of the showiest wildflowers in the western and prairie regions of the United States once it blossoms. The Rocky Mountain bee plant is often found along dry roadsides and waste places, It is an annual herb that can grow up to 4-feet tall, has an unpleasant odor, and so is mostly avoided by livestock and deer: another good reason to grow it in your yard.
Rocky Mountain Bee Plant (cleome) can be found throughout western North America, from southern British Columbia, east to Minnesota, and as far south as Arizona and New Mexico. It is now also naturalized in eastern areas of North America. This species was one of the many new plants that was collected and catalogued along the Vermillion River in South Dakota on August 25, 1804 by Lewis and Clark’s “Corps of Discovery.”
Cleome serrulata is an important cultural plant for many Southwestern Indian tribes. The young, tender shoots and leaves are good sources of vitamin A and calcium. In the past they were used as potherbs or medicinally as teas for fevers and other ailments. The seeds were ground and used to make gruel or bread. The Navajo still use the plant as a source of yellow-green dye for their beautiful wool rugs and blankets. Many pueblo tribes use a concentrated form of dye, made from boiling the plant into a thick black resin, to paint designs on pottery or for decorating their baskets.
How to Sow Bee Plant
Cleome serrulata has traditionally been considered a member of the Caper (Capparidaceae) family but recent genetic studies indicate that it is much more closely related to the Mustard (Brassicaceae) family. It is an annual that readily self-sows but only under certain conditions. The seeds will only germinate if they are planted at least 1/4 inch under the soil and not more than 1/2 inch. They need moist conditions until they sprout, but once they get a good root system going, they are pretty drought tolerant.
The plants like full sun or partial shade and will grow where other drought tolerant weeds or herbs grow, in fields, such as alongside mullein, in abandoned pastures. Bee plant will start producing seeds while it’s still flowering, and because it flowers from the bottom up, it continues to blossom for a long time giving bees some much needed fall nectar. Once the seed pods turn brown, you can collect the seed and keep them to start new plants from year to year.
How to find Bee Plant Seeds
Not many seed catalogs carry bee plant seeds, so your best bet is to collect them if you know of a wild patch that grows nearby, or, we know of a couple online seed suppliers that do carry the seeds: such as prairiemoon.com or highcountrygardens.com. Your best bet is a garden supplier that specializes in seeds and plants for xeriscaping or carries naturally drought tolerant plants for rock gardens and such.
How to keep Bee Plant established in your yard
As mentioned above, once they get going, cleome are fairly drought tolerant and do not require rich soil or much moisture. One thing to keep in mind is they will reseed themselves, so be sure to start them in an area of your yard or garden where they can do so, or, save the seed and restart them indoors a couple weeks before your average last frost date and transplant them where you want them after all danger of frost. The bees will love you and your yard for it.
Photos by L.J. Hodek