California's Beautiful Beneficial Bountiful Buckwheats Beat the Heat

Island buckwheat, Eriogonum arborescens, in Town Mouse garden

The great Nevin Smith says of buckwheats:
They are the ridge runners, the cliff dwellers, and the denizens of rocky scree and (fortunately, for the more fainthearted tourist) road banks. (Native Treasures p 179.)
And -- they are the delightful denizens of native plant gardens in July and on into fall. This post is kind of a compendium of Buckwheats I have grown - or want to. And you might want to too.

All have lots of pom-pom (or sometimes flattened pom-pom) heads of densely clustered tiny flowers held aloft on stems that "radiate like spokes from a common base" (Smith), ranging in color from white, cream, yellow, orange, and pink to crimson.

Their blooms last long and slowly turn shades of cinnamon brown that have visual appeal even for those of us who have not fully learned the love of such sunny California tints.

Eriogonum is a huge genus. Over a hundred species and subspecies grow in California and as many again elsewhere. It is related through its botanical family tree to the kind we eat - in the genus Fagopyrum, which originated in Asia.

Buckwheats are great for pollinators; bees and especially butterflies love the nectar. In addition, bees use the pollen to feed larva and butterfly larvae (aka caterpillars, aka protein-rich baby food for birds) can eat the plants.

Caterpillars don't (in my experience) eat whole plants - please leave the caterpillars. No caterpillars, no birds -- or butterflies.

Deer never eat naked buckwheat or any other species I'm growing -- except sometimes coastal (E. latifolium) and rosy buckwheat (E. rubicunda)- at least my deer never do. Other buckwheats vary. Rosy buckwheat grows safe within a fence on my property, for example.

I grow several different sorts of buckwheats on my sunny Central Coast ridge and I'll show you pictures of them below. Everyone who can should grow these cheerful plants!

For more info on buckwheats - advice on garden use, and pictures of even more species - see this Las Pilitas page. And for a list of many butterflies that buckwheats support, see this other Las Pilitas page.

Eriogonum nudum, Naked Buckwheat - My local native

This is the only buckwheat that grows wild near me. It's also the most common species in California, according to Nevin Smith. 

Native wasp on a naked buckwheat flower.
Buckwheats also provide food for caterpillars and pollen for bee larvae

Clouds and clouds of tiny white to pink pom-poms float about four feet in the air atop the long stems.

Naked buckwheat in my garden (this photo and following ones)

The nearest wild population of our local buckwheat is about a mile away from my garden. It grows on the dry sandy slopes uphill from a creek. This is where I gathered seeds, many years ago now.

Buckwheats are tough. Here growing wild on a dry sandy slope a mile from our home.

Naked buckwheat plants rise high from a basal whorl of felty leaves on upward-growing, elegantly dividing naked stems, which are hollow, and (like all buckwheat species) brittle.

Because the basal flowers tend to get crusty in the dry summer garden (and because it's rather tall for front of border), naked buckwheat is best used in the middle of things.

Here's a lovely article on naked buckwheat by a fellow native plant gardener and writer, Debbie Ballantine

BTW - I'm curious to see if I get any naked buckwheat hybrids popping up in the garden. This was my fear when I used to grow only this one species, but I've since loosened the reins. I feel only a little uneasy about this guilty pleasure! I'm not going to provide seeds or plants for restoration anywhere else, and I don't think the wild ones are close enough to be in danger of gene pool pollution from my other garden beauties.

Eriogonum crocatum, Conejo Buckwheat

Conejo buckwheat, Eriogonum crocatum. Photo: John Rusk

I bought my single plant some years ago from East Bay Wilds, Pete Veilleux's native plant nursery in the middle of Oakland. (Look for Pete's photos on Flickr - amazing!)
I'll let John Rusk give you some information on this lemony-yellow buckwheat, which grows successfully in my hot south garden.
Eriogonum crocatum—Conejo buckwheat. Included in the CNPS Inventory of Rare and Endangered Plants on list 1B.2 (rare, threatened, or endangered in CA and elsewhere). The species is also listed by the State of California as Rare. The only wild populations are in the Conejo Grade area of Ventura County (I probably trampled over several plants when I was with the Seabees back in the early 1960s). Successfully introduced to coastal southern California gardens, trickier elsewhere. Each flower within the inflorescence measures 5 to 6 mm. Photographed at Regional Parks Botanic Garden located in Tilden Regional Park near Berkeley, CA.

Eriogonum umbellatum var. polyanthum, Shasta Sulfur Buckwheat

Eriogonum umbellatum var. polyanthum, Shasta Sulfur Buckwheat -- in a friend's garden

Popular in gardens, this can be a short-lived species. But well worth it for the splash of color. It's a brighter yellow than the E. crocatum, I think, but like that buckwheat, is a compact plant. The flower heads have a nice tight geometrical arrangement. I'm not currently growing this one but have - and will again.

Eriogonum rubicunda, Rosy Buckwheat

This to my mind is simply the most GORGEOUS buckwheat you can grow! But deer will eat this one more than others. I'm growing it behind a fence.

Eriogonum grande rubescens, rosy buckwheat, in my garden with
Clarkia rubicunda, ruby chalice clarkia, to right, Keckiella cordifolia, heartleaf penstemon, upper right,
and Encelia californica, coastal or brittle leaf sunflower, upper left (nearing the end of its big bloom period).

A favorite shot of mine - Eriogonum grande rubescens in a garden I photographed for an article a while back

Here's E. grande rubescens, rosy buckwheat, turning cinnamon in late summer

Eriogonum latifolium, Coast Buckwheat

Coast buckwheat are gorgeous in the wild - you can see lots on the bluffs at Wilder Ranch State park, and other locations north of Santa Cruz. And elsewhere along the coast of California too.

Their pom-poms are about an inch big and vary from creamy to pink. Deer do nibble them though, in my garden.

Eriogonum latifolium, coast buckwheat, growing wild north of Santa Cruz

Eriogonum latifolium, coast buckwheat. Indificual plants grow in a big pincushion form

Oops! these are Eriogonum parvifolium, sea cliff buckwheat! Thanks to my astute commenter Katie for clearing up my doubts here!

E. latifolium in a friend's garden, with native bee.

In my garden, they are growing creamy white with big flower heads. Does it depend on soil, the color?
These are children of the children of the wild plants pictured above (or their nearby siblings)

Eriogonum arborescens, Santa Cruz Island Buckwheat

Eriogonum arborescens, Santa Cruz Island buckwheat, in Town Mouse garden
Nevin Smith is really enthusiastic about this long-lived buckwheat as a great small shrub (up to three feet tall and wider) especially for dry slopes. Its flowers are a kind of old-fashioned muted pink I really love and they grade into a lovely pinkish brown shade as they dry.

I've got a small one growing which I dug from Town Mouse's garden while she wasn't looking. No - just kidding - she kindly offered me a couple that had grown from seed near her lovely plants (see top of post). One is surviving and I'm hoping for great things from it next year.

Eriogonum giganteum, Saint Catherine's Lace Buckwheat

If you want a big dramatic statement -- go for the giant! 

Eriogonum giganteum, Sant Catherine's lace buckwheat in my garden
 - actually just below it on a dry sandy chaparral slope

E. giganteum reseeded itself massively this year - after several years of just not being there!

The flower heads are big as dinner plates - no, bigger! Unlike most buckwheats and like other unrelated plants
given the common name Saint Catherine's lace -- the flower heads are spread out in a flat arrangement.
Flower heads are as big as - no, bigger than! -- dinner plates.

Attractively felted large gray-green leaves grow up the plant rather than in a basal whorl.

I love this buckwheat - but it may reseed too enthusiastically in my totally dry, sandy, sloping chaparral slope. In fact some years ago, I stopped growing it - uprooted all my plants and any seedlings that followed -- when I was growing E. nudum for seed collection and sharing (to avoid danger of hybridization).

That was some years ago - and yet this year, a whole bank of them has sprouted up where I used to grow them! I put it down to the rainy winter which seems to have primed all sorts of things to put on a great show this year. I'm not sure if I'll let it spread - it really is nice and I might let it go a bit to see how it behaves.

Eriogonum fasciculatum, California buckwheat

Eriogonum fasciculatum, California buckwheat, in the amazing Regional Park Botanic Garden,
a native plant wonder in Tilden Regional Park, in the Berkeley hills.

Eriogonum fasciculatum, California buckwheat - maybe!
See commenter Katie's comments below on it being possibly a "narrow-arrow form of seacliff (E. parvifolium)"

I don't grow this buckwheat currently but I plan to. It has such huge wildlife value, being a host plant for a lot of rather rare butterflies. Plus it's so tough - good for sunny dry areas. I think it gets a bit sprawl but I can't comment from experience - so it might be better for -- less formal gardens.

The leaves are different from other buckwheats, being held in needle-like fascicles, a sign of its ability to get by in hot dry summers.

For more info on this tough plant, widespread from the Central Coast south, you could start with this Wikipedia article.


Given we recently and cursorily mentioned the issue with correct local buckwheat IDs, I'm guessing you may have a couple photos mixed up, particularly a "really pink" seacliff (Eriogonum parvifolium, a shrub w/ leaves along the stems) disguised on your blog as a coast buckwheat (Eriogonum latifolium, an apparent perennial w/ basal leaves).
ps - I'm also guessing your last photo is not a CA buckwheat shrub (Eriogonum fasciculatum - think linear, like rosemary leaves), but the narrow-arrow form of seacliff (E. parvifolium) - I know that it doesn't seem possible, but my understanding is that Jim Reveal (the author of the official keys to the world's Eriogonum spp.) is currently unwilling to publicly split the coastal rounder leaves from the narrower inland leaves (even by only 5-7 miles inland) into subspecies or varieties (he previously did so, and then recanted... possibly due to the ramifications of central CA coastal land-use laws). He's still looking for someone talented enough to sort out the molecular biology. CA buckwheat has been planted by Cal-Trans for at least 50 years along the coast for the purpose of hill-side stabilization. The mere fact of CA buckwheat's existence on the coast has confused many a native CA plant enthusiast.
Country Mouse said…
Thanks, Katie - I'm updating the blog with your info - I was in doubt about the "really pink" one as I said and am glad to know that it's Eriogonum parvifolium! Also very interesting what you add about the two last photos -- so interesting. I've wondered about what future botanists will make of the mixing up of native plants that goes on - not just in gardens but in larger scale project as you are mentioning.
Common names coast/seaside buckwheat (E. latifolium) are different than seacliff/dune buckwheat (E. parvifolium), which makes it all more confusing than it needs to be. Your 2nd to last photo does, indeed, look like CA buckwheat (E. fasciculatum); however, I have my doubts about your last photo - I would have to look at the undersides of the leaves (distinct petiole, no matter how narrow or round the leaf = parvifolium vs. linear, even if wider in the middle of leaf = fasciculatum) and how the flower clusters splay (generally split in 2 = parvifolium vs. mostly whorls of multiples = fasciculatum). It doesn't help that our local CNPS-sanctioned field guides and keys have them incorrect.
Oh my. I discovered this morning that Jim Reveal died last year, barely more than a month after my last communication with him. He mentioned hopes to pass along his torch to Ben Grady to resolve the "molecular/morphological conflicts" of Eriogonum data.
Ed Morrow said…
Last year I bought a packet each of E. giganteum and E. grande var rubescens seeds from Seedhunt. I started both packets in two "conetainers" (98 tubes in each rack). Every tube germinated at least one plant. Later I potted them up to 18 oz. beer cups with holes in the bottom for drainage. In the spring I planted out a few of the starts to see how they performed. They did wonderfully and suffered only slightly from rabbit and ground squirrel predation. They were planted in fast draining soil with little organic matter in the soil. The balance of the starts I will grow through the summer and plant them out early in the fall. These two varieties have turned me into and eriogonum fan, and I look forward to trying some more soon. Any suggestions? I'm on a south facing slope in Carmel Valley.
ebw-pete said…
thank you for this very good overview of the common buckwheats in the trade. i was very saddened to read that Jim Reveal has died! i'd been emailing back/forth w/ him for years and found him to be very kind and generous w/ his time and knowledge.
Country Mouse said…
Ed, I don't have enough experience as yet to proffer any advice. Your south facing slope may have similarities to mine perhaps. Mine is certainly hot and dry - but I wonder if our soils would be different. Mine is mudstone/sandstone based and yes - low in organic nutrients.

I haven't done any planting in that area yet but maybe we can collaborate by sharing notes. I'm thinking this fall I may plant around a flattish area near the bottom of the chaparral slope, about 40 feet in diameter, that we cleared some years ago with the idea of creating a peaceful place to sit. So far we haven't had time for peaceful sitting, or planting! But this fall I want to try E. fasciculatum and maybe some others. Have to think about this project!

I'm glad to hear your propagation was so successful. I want to get some of those cone-tainers sometime!
Country Mouse said…
I'm sorry to hear of the death of Jim Reveal - I didn't know him but I've looked him up since you left your comment, Katie.

Thanks for your kind words, Pete! I hope the overview of common buckwheats will be helpful to gardeners and maybe to others who are helping people get into native gardening.