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Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Plant of the Month (August) : Seacliff (Dune) Buckwheat - Eriogonum parvifolium


Seacliff (Dune) Buckwheat (Eriogonum parvifolium) - white flowers, left

 
Native buckwheats are the stars of local gardens in August.  Their pretty, pink-white flowers and orange-brown seed heads attract a host of birds and insects; they are sometimes literally covered with butterflies and other insects.  One local species, blooming now in Mother Nature’s Backyard, is the Seacliff or Dune Buckwheat, Eriogonum parvifolium (pronounced ‘air-ee-OGG-oh-num  par-vee-FOE-lee-um’.

Seacliff Buckwheat is also known commonly as Cliff Buckwheat, Seacliff wild buckwheat, Dune buckwheat, Dune eriogonum, Small-leaved wild buckwheat and Small-leaved buckwheat. It was first proposed as a species in 1809 [1] and  botanists collected it from the Los Angeles County coast in 1881 [2].     Several varieties have been proposed; most now regard all of the coastal forms as a single species.  

The wild Buckwheats – genus Eriogonum – are flowering plants in the family Polygonaceae (the Knotweed or Buckwheat family).  There are over 250 species and sub-species native to California.  Many California Eriogonums are half-woody shrubs (sub-shrubs) or perennials, although some are annuals.   Eriogonum species are native to North America and not to be confused with the Asian cereal/flour buckwheats, which are in a different genus (Fagopyrum).  Our native wild Buckwheats are not the source of buckwheat pancakes – that’s Fagopyrum – but they are a preferred food source for many a hungry insect.

Dune Buckwheat (Eriogonum parvifolium) is a good example of the buckwheats native to western Los Angeles County.  In the wilds, it still can be found in coastal areas from Monterey to San Diego County.   It grows most commonly on dunes and bluffs near the ocean, where it provides important habitat under challenging coastal conditions.  But in our area it also extends further inland, to areas covered by coastal shrubland and coastal sage scrub.  For example, there are still areas of native Coastal Buckwheat in undeveloped areas on the CSU Dominguez Hills campus (native coastal shrubland).   So Coastal Buckwheat is right at home in Mother Nature’s Backyard as well as on the Preserve.

Seacliff (Dune) Buckwheat (Eriogonum parvifolium
 on coastal cliffs, Redondo Beach, California
 
Seacliff (Dune) Buckwheat (Eriogonum parvifolium)
typical form away from sandy coastal soils
 
 
Seacliff buckwheat is a sub-shrub (the bases of the branches are woody, while the newer parts are herbaceous) with numerous slender branches.  On sand/sandy soils near the coast, the branches are prostrate (lying on the ground) or decumbent (reclining on the ground, but with up-turned tips).  In less sandy soils – like our clay soil here at the garden - the branches may be fairly upright.   The branches are 1-3 feet (to 1 meter) long and a mature plant may spread to 4-5+ feet wide.  Overall, the plants usually resemble a series of upright stems, rather than the mounded, shrub-like forms of other local buckwheats (see photo, above).

Seacliff (Dune) Buckwheat (Eriogonum parvifolium)
wet-season leaves
 
Seacliff (Dune) Buckwheat (Eriogonum parvifolium)
Dry season leaves
 
The leaves of Seacliff buckwheat are smaller than those of some native Buckwheats, less than an inch (3 cm) across - usually about 0.5 inches (1.25 cm) in our area.  Leaves tend to be smaller in drier conditions.  The leaves have a distinctive, rounded, buckwheat shape (see above) and are medium green above and lighter green beneath due to cob-webby hairs. 

In spring, the leaves are succulent, relatively flat and hairy.   As the soil dries in summer, the leaves roll under at the edges – a water saving strategy.  Under really dry conditions, the leaves become tightly rolled and finally are dropped entirely. They may also turn red – a stress-related reaction.  These are mechanisms to allow the plant to survive the long dry summers associated with our mediterranean climate.  Seacliff buckwheat is a real survivor!

Seacliff (Dune) Buckwheat (Eriogonum parvifolium)
Foliage with red leaves

Seacliff (Dune) Buckwheat (Eriogonum parvifolium)
flowering plant

The main flowering season for Seacliff buckwheat is summer, although some flowers may be present throughout the year in a garden setting.   In most years, the major bloom occurs from late July through August in our area.  The flowers are just what an insect longs for: many tiny flowers, clustered in easy-to-access bunches and producing high quality nectar and pollen.

Seacliff (Dune) Buckwheat (Eriogonum parvifolium)
Close-up of flowers in tight, ball-like clusters

Seacliff (Dune) Buckwheat (Eriogonum parvifolium)
Gray Hairstreak butterfly nectars on flowers
 
As seen in the picture above, the flowers are cream-pink in color.   A plant in full bloom is literally covered with blossoms – a sight to behold.  The flowers attract a wide range of insects from native bees and butterflies to pollinator flies, beetles and wasps.  If forced to choose one plant to attract summer insects, it would have to be a buckwheat.  You’ll want to have a seat nearby, where you can sit and watch the many visitors.

Seacliff (Dune) Buckwheat (Eriogonum parvifolium) with
Fiery Skipper butterfly

Seacliff (Dune) Buckwheat (Eriogonum parvifolium) with
Pacific Burrowing Wasp
 
Dune buckwheat is host plant to two endangered butterfly species.  Near Monterey, it provides larval food for the Smith's dotted-blue (Euphilotes enoptes smithi).  In Los Angeles County, it is well known for its role in the survival of the federally endangered El Segundo Blue Butterfly (Euphilotes battoides allyni).  These tiny, short-lived butterflies can sometimes be seen fluttering around Eriogonum parvifolium on coastal dunes and sandy cliffs of the South Bay.  The plants also attract a number of other butterflies, primarily the smaller Skippers, Duskywings, Marine Blues, Hairstreaks and others.

Seacliff buckwheat is an easy-to-grow plant in the garden, providing you don’t water it much (or any) in the summer months.  We’ve grown it successfully in sandy and clay soils.  It needs full sun and probably does best within 8-10 miles of the coast.  Sandy, salty maritime conditions are no problem for this tough buckwheat.

Like several other local buckwheats (Ashyleaf buckwheat – Eriogonum cinerium; California buckwheat – Eriogonum fasciculatum; Giant buckwheat – Eriogonum giganteum) Eriogonum parvifolium is quick to establish.  Plant in late fall/winter, give occasional summer water (every 2-4 weeks) the first summer, and it’s established.  You will need to supplement in winter/spring if rains are scanty thereafter.  But these plants require little summer water once established. 

Seacliff (Dune) Buckwheat (Eriogonum parvifolium)
young plant
 
We may water our Seacliff buckwheat once or twice between late May and November in Mother Nature’s Backyard.   We’ve watered once a month in another garden – clay soil, but on a slope.  Be sure to pick a cool, overcast period for summer watering.   These plants are fairly pest-free, but can be killed by root fungi, if soil is moist during warm weather. 

Seacliff buckwheat requires very little maintenance.   We prune ours back by about 1/3 in late fall or winter to simulate natural ‘pruning’ by animals.  We also remove old dead stems, if any, at that time.  That’s about all the management that’s required.   If the plants spread too much, simply cut them back.  Other than that, Seacliff buckwheat is a plant that thrives on a gardener’s neglectful propensities.

Seacliff (Dune) Buckwheat (Eriogonum parvifolium)
Mother Nature's Backyard, Gardena Willows Wetland Preserve
 
We’ve planted  Eriogonum parvifolium in all the gardens we manage, as well as in restoration projects.  It makes a hardy, shrubby groundcover on sunny slopes. We also plant it along walls and fences, to ‘soften’ their harsh lines.  Seacliff buckwheat works well in mixed, water-wise beds with other native shrubs and grasses. 

Seacliff (Dune) Buckwheat (Eriogonum parvifolium)
Madrona Marsh Preserve, Torrance CA
 
We like to contrast the foliage of the several local buckwheats and often plant several species in a garden.   They provide essential color and interest in the summer and fall garden. Their billows of soft colors remind us that autumn is coming and complement evergreen shrubs and the yellow sunflowers of fall.  Their soft shapes are perfect for the natural cottage garden.


Seacliff (Dune) Buckwheat (Eriogonum parvifolium) right
 and Ashyleaf buckwheat (left front)
 
Of course, Eriogonum parvifolium is an important shrub for habitat gardens, attracting both insects and insect- and seed-eating birds.   You can’t have too many buckwheats in a local habitat garden!     The young shoots can be cooked in the spring and eaten as wild greens.  Native Californians boiled the leaves to make a medicinal tea to treat headaches and stomach ailments.  The flowers were steeped in water, and the water then used as an eyewash.   All parts of the plant (including prunings) can be used to make brown and orange natural dyes.

Seacliff (Dune) Buckwheat (Eriogonum parvifolium) in fall
Mother Nature's Backyard, Gardena CA
 
In summary, Seacliff buckwheat is a natural addition to coastal California gardens.  It provides so much in a single plant: food, habitat, color and interesting shapes.  They provide floral color in summer and fall, when other local native are dormant.  To us, they help provide the ‘feel’ of coastal California, harking back to times past. We hope you’ll consider this easy plant for your own water-wise garden.  And if you live on the coast of Los Angeles County, you may even provide habitat for the endangered El Segundo Blue.
 





For more on California buckwheat – Eriogonum fasciculatum: http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2014/06/plant-of-month-june-california.html


  

For plant information sheets on other native plants see: http://nativeplantscsudh.blogspot.com/p/gallery-of-native-plants_17.html

  

________________________________

 
  1. Flora of North America - http://www.efloras.org/florataxon.aspx?flora_id=1&taxon_id=250060455
  2. Consortium of California Herbaria - http://ucjeps.berkeley.edu/cgi-bin/get_consort.pl?taxon_name=Eriogonum%20parvifolium

 

 

We welcome your comments (below).  You can also send your questions to: mothernaturesbackyard10@gmail.com

 

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