Buckwheats: Stars of Summer
By Sandy Metzger, Sonoma County Master Gardener
When the dog days of summer and temperatures of 100° or more hit, you think that nothing more could possibly bloom in your garden. Flowers are going to seed, the soil is hard and crusted from heat and your reduced water regimen, and you’re discouraged from trying to keep up with the deadheading and wilting. Along come the native buckwheats, some dramatic in size and color, surprising the rest of your garden by breaking out in full bloom and asking only for sun, little or no water, and good drainage! My latest garden passions are the giant buckwheat and the red buckwheat (this concurrently with my continuing love affair with Tricostema lanatum (woolly blue curls).
Right about mid-June, red buckwheat (Eriogonum grande var. rubescens) comes into full bloom. The flower is not red-red but closer to a dark pink to crimson, rising above the gray-green foliage on heavy stems in one-inch pompoms. This buckwheat loves rocky or gravelly open sites and works well as a pronounced punctuation of pink in a mixed border or massed for a more colorful eye-catching effect. Your border mixed with the red buckwheat ought to include plants with similar cultural requirements as most buckwheats do not like either heavy shade or soggy feet. The red can get up to three feet high and six feet wide, but not quickly.
Just visualize drifts of red buckwheat in a stunning monochromatic setting with Sidalcea malvaflora (checkerbloom), Salvia canariensis, S. spathacea, Lepechinia fragrans or L. hastata, and the native shrub Cercis occidentalis (western redbud). Considerable space would be required for such a combination as it includes the ground-hugging checkerbloom up to the tree-like western redbud, known to grow to 15 feet.
However, the real drama queen of the species is the giant buckwheat, Eriogonum giganteum ‘St. Catherine’s Lace’. It is not tidy and definitely requires space, growing up to ten feet tall and almost as broad. It resembles a huge rounded mound of the common creamy white wildflower Queen Anne’s Lace, but with the flower heads often more than a foot in diameter. It begins sending up its flower stems in early to mid-June, the tiny clustered buds maturing slowly day by day. Then one day in late June or early July, you’ll step into your garden, and there it is, in its full, glorious bloom, a mound of intricate, giant lace doilies, attracting many species of butterflies, bees, and other tiny insects. (Don’t forget: the more pollinators we can attract, the better it is for our own gardens and the entire agricultural community.)
The beautiful gray-green foliage with the frosty white undersides looks quite innocent in its one-gallon nursery pot; however, it is so dramatic and becomes so large, you may want it as single garden species. Give this one plenty of space! It will not work in a small city lot-sized garden, unless it is the only plant there. Besides being large, the stems are somewhat fragile, snapping off when a human or animal roughly pushes past it or a hose is dragged over its lower stems. It is happy out in open space or mixes well with other natives such as ceanothus, manzanita, woolly blue curls, and the more shrubby salvias such as clevelandi or brandegii, and even the early-blooming currants Ribes sanguineum or R. glutinosum.
Buckwheats in general bloom over a long period, eventually fading through shades of tan, beige, camel, and caramel to rust-red. The striking spent blooms stay mostly upright on their mound of foliage. You may leave them in the garden or prune them back to hang upside down for later use in dried flower, foliage, and ornamental grass arrangements.
Propagation by seed is known to be the best way to reproduce these plants, as they are prodigious seed producers. Although if you have them in a heavily mulched garden, you may not find the seedlings you desire. As they are proceeding through their various shades of color toward the end of their peak bloom time, their flowers will begin to “shatter”. You can collect the seed at this point, either by bagging it or even sweeping the seeds up from the ground. The seeds do not require special treatment. Just sow in sand or potting mix kept moist until they germinate. Then let them dry out between waterings and transplant into larger pots several times during their first year of growth.
If you haven’t yet discovered the buckwheats, try these two in your garden. They bloom in the summer when many other natives are going into summer dormancy, and they reward you with seemingly never-ending color and interest. Even the foliage without flowers and the more mature gnarly stems are beautiful. Buckwheats ask for so little and yet give so much.
©Sonoma County Master Gardeners