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Friday, June 6, 2014

Plant of the Month (June) : California buckwheat - Eriogonum fasciculatum

California buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum) in foreground

The buckwheats (genus Eriogonum) are among the most important summer-flowering plants in S. California gardens.  In a typical year, the period from May through October is replete with their beauty.  Beginning with the California, Conejo and Red buckwheats, transitioning into the giant St. Catherine’s lace and ending with the Coastal/dune and Ashy-leaf buckwheats, the Eriogonums span the seasons with floral, seed and foliage color.   Our hot dry winter and spring have confused many plants this year.  But true to form, California buckwheat is a standout in our June floral display.

California buckwheat has a wide geographic distribution compared to other local  buckwheats.  It grows from California, Utah and Arizona in the north to northern Mexico and Baja California, Mexico, in the south.  There are at least four recognized varieties.  Two of them (varieties fasciculatum and foliolosum) are native to western Los Angeles County, including the Palos Verdes peninsula and the lowland areas of the old El Segundo dunes (coastal area from El Segundo south to the Palos Verdes peninsula).   

The species grows in a number of plant communities including Chaparral, Coastal Scrub, Coastal Areas, Desert Chaparral,   Oak and other Woodlands and Grasslands.  Locally it is found in Coastal Sage Scrub, Coastal Shrubland and Back Dune/Coastal Prairie communities.   Variety fasciculatum grows primarily below 1200 ft. elevation, while variety foliolosum will sometimes be found as high as 5000 ft. elevation.   Both grow in hot, dry locations with well-drained soils, often on open slopes, mesas and bluffs.   It’s not surprising that California buckwheat is a tough, hardy survivor.

Eriogonum fasciculatum growth habit - Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden
Claremont, CA

Like many of our local perennial buckwheats, Eriogonum fasciculatum is a mounded sub-shrub with a woody base and more herbaceous new growth.  Variety fasciculatum, which is typical of coastal sub-shrubs, is more likely to be low-growing – even decumbent (lying on the ground) - particularly along the coast.  Variety foliolosum is more upright and mounded.  Both have numerous, rather thin branches and dense growth.  Mature plants are 3-5 ft tall and wide, but may spread to 6-7+ feet wide in the garden.  Plants have a moderate growth rate and are among the longer-lived native shrubs. 

Leaves, California buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum)

The leaves of Eriogonum fasciculatum give California buckwheat its name.  They are clustered in dense bundles (fascicles) along the stems.  As is common for the genus, California buckwheat’s leaves roll under in the dry months.  In this species, the leaves become very tightly rolled, giving them an almost needle-like appearance.   The leaves are small (3/4 inch or less), dark- to gray-green above, lighter and hairy beneath.  Plants are evergreen except in the severest of droughts.
Flowers, California buckwheat: Madrona Marsh Native Plant Gardens,
 Torrance CA

Native buckwheats are amongst the prettiest of flowering plants and California buckwheat is a real prize winner.  The plants are massed with flowers from late spring through mid-summer.  While individual flowers are small (see below), they form dense terminal clusters that can nearly cover the foliage.  California buckwheat’s flowers range from white to pale pink.  The flowers are in parts of six and the stamens (pollen producing organs) extend beyond the perianth, giving flower clusters a fuzzy appearance. 
Flowers: California buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum)

California buckwheat is an important pollinator plant.  On a warm summer day, plants are alive with insects ranging in size from butterflies to tiny native bees.  Buckwheats are probably our best all-round summer pollinator plants.  They attract the entire range of pollinator insects: butterflies, European honey bees (honey is delicious!), native bees of all sizes, pollinator flies, beetles and many others.  Plant a native buckwheat if you’re concerned about the health and welfare of our pollinators.

If you’ve only space for one native habitat plant, let it be a buckwheat.  Native buckwheats are long-blooming, supplying thousands of flowers at a time.  The flowers produce high quality nectar and pollen, so they attract both pollen- and nectar-seeking insects.  Many of them are larval (caterpillar) food sources for native butterflies.  For example, California buckwheat provides larval food for Mormon Metalmark, Bernardino Blue and Bramble, Common and Avalon Hairstreak butterflies.  Rabbits and some birds (quails) eat the flowers and foliage. Birds and small creatures take cover under the dense, shady foliage.
California buckwheat flowers, seeds

As if that’s not enough, the Buckwheats also produce small, tasty seeds.  On a fall day, it’s not uncommon to spot a group of seed-eating birds on/near a garden buckwheat, busily partaking of the feast.  Among those you may encounter are the finches, Dark-eyed juncos and Brown towhees.  Many gardeners let their buckwheats go to seed simply to attract the seed-eaters.  But that’s not the only reason to hold back on deadheading your buckwheats.
California buckwheat through the seasons. Plant is the shrub just behind
 the right side of the arbor

Buckwheats help us celebrate the cycle of seasons.  Their fresh new growth indicates the height of the growth season; their flowers the end of growth and beginning of the dry season.  And their dried flowers and seeds – with their lovely rust and brown tones - signal the end of the dry season.   The color palette of the buckwheats is an inspiration to artists and garden designers alike.  But the yearly cycle of the buckwheats – unchanging, unhurried and rhythmic – connects us to the earth and our S. California natural heritage.  Priceless!

California buckwheat prefers full sun but will take some afternoon shade.  While it likes a well-drained soil, it can be grown in any local soil from sandy to clay.  If you have a clay soil, consider planting buckwheats on a small berm and be careful not to over-water in summer.  

Eriogonum fasciculatum and most other locally native buckwheats do well in alkali soils, which don’t bother them in the least.  If you use an organic mulch, go lightly.  We recommend starting with a 2” layer at planting time, then letting the mulch degrade naturally, without replenishment.  Once this buckwheat gets going, you won’t need mulch to control the weeds!  For more on mulches see: Understanding Mulches - http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2012/07/understanding-mulches_23.html.

Watering California buckwheat requires an understanding of the plant’s survival mechanisms.  This plant has a long taproot, allowing it to access deeper soil water.  It also has shallower, fibrous roots.  It needs good winter/spring water.  In fact, in a dry year like this, we watered our buckwheats deeply about once a month to supplement the rainfall.  The dry season is a bit more challenging.  Some buckwheats, for example Eriogonum parvifolium, are very sensitive and do best with very occasional or no summer water.  California buckwheat – and particularly the cultivars – are more forgiving.   They look good with occasional summer water – perhaps several times in a summer in western Southern California.

Buckwheats are fairly carefree garden plants.  They have few pests and diseases and are generally hardy plants.  Local gardeners cut this species back in late fall to promote plant health.   This cutting back should begin in the first years of life or the plants will become too woody.  Woody old plants should be replaced – with a pledge to prune the replacement properly and regularly.  Cut plants back to 4-6 inches above the woody part of the stem.  That’s about all it takes.

Eriogonum fasciculatum in garden.  It is the shrub with masses of
pale pink blooms behind the bright pink Red buckwheat

California buckwheat is a staple in habitat gardens.  It is often used mid-bed with smaller plants in front of it and can be used as a mid-sized ground cover.  It works well on dry slopes and in areas that are difficult to water.  It complements native Salvias in foliage and flowering.  California buckwheat is planted in rock gardens and can easily be included in gardens featuring water-wise Mediterranean herbs like Rosemary and Lavender.  Once in place, try not to move it – the long taproot makes it difficult to move successfully.

One word of caution: this plant is best planted within its natural range.  It has escaped cultivation and is becoming a weedy non-native  in some areas of Northern California, Oregon, Arizona and Texas.  Be a responsible gardener, particularly if you live near wild areas; plant the species and varieties that are native to your area.
Eriogonum fasciculatum 'Dana point'

There are several cultivars that are widely available.  ‘Dana Point’ is a lovely mounded cultivar that does very well in local gardens.  It grows to about 2 1/w ft. tall and spreads to 5+ feet wide.  We have this cultivar in Mother Nature’s Backyard.  It draws raves every year.

Cultivar 'Warriner Lytle' is lower growing – usually less than 2 feet – with dark green leaves and somewhat resembling a prostrate Rosemary.  It makes a good groundcover and would do well on hot slopes.   ‘Theodore Payne’ buckwheat is even shorter (1 ft.) and is also recommended as a ground cover.

Eriogonum fasciculatum 'Theodore Payne'

California buckwheat is used medicinally where ever it grows.  Native Californians and other Native Peoples use it primarily to treat headaches, stomach problems, diarrhea and wounds.  Both the leaves and roots are used, fresh and dried.   For colds, coughs and sore throats and pre-menstrual bloating a mild tea is prepared.  A stronger decoction from roots was traditionally used for diarrhea, stomach troubles and to ‘clean the system’.  A strong tea from the leaves is reported to cure headaches and a decoction from young flowers is used as an eyewash.  A poultice made from dried roots or fresh leaves and flowers was formerly applied to wounds.  For medicinal uses, older established plants are reported to be more efficacious. The small seeds and young shoots are edible.  The leaves were traditionally used to line granaries to keep acorns dry.

In summary, California buckwheat is an extremely useful shrub.  It is excellent for habitat, requires little care and is a great addition to water-wise gardens where ever it grows naturally.



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


1 comment:

  1. I love native buckwheat and as a beekeeper learned early on of its wonderful value as a nectar source during mid to late summer when so many other plants have finished blooming here on the central coast of Ca. Honey made from buckwheat nectar is dark and rich and 2 tbsp. of raw, local buckwheat honey mixed with green tea made with 2 teabags or their equivalent of loose tea, brewed very strongly drunk as often as needed or wanted is a terrific cough suppressant.I found it works as well as narcotic based cough syrups without the potential side effects opiates hazard. One caveat, however, children under 1 year of age should only be given honey under a doctor's orders. Raw local honey @ 2 tbsp/day is a wonderful way to fight pollen allergies as with each bite of honey you are ingesting the pollen causing the allergy symptoms hence giving your immune system a chance to build antibodies against the allergen. I tried this years ago and stopped for a while (I actually forgot to eat the honey) and my allergies came back but to a lesser degree.