Continuing our focus on select species of Eriogonum (wild buckwheat), this week's discussion features California buckwheat (E. fasciculatum).
First, here is a quick review of characteristics common to all of California's wild buckwheats. They are hardy colonizers of tough soils and dry ecosystems, such as coastal scrub and chaparral. They can live at the edges of deserts and up to high elevation tree lines. Their blossoms are important to pollinators such as bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds, providing them with flowering food long after other natives have gone dormant. Buckwheat flowers have tall, slim, delicate anthers that seem to float above the flower mass, creating their signature lacy or frilly look. Because they hybridize indiscriminately, at last count there were over 250 species to explore and enjoy.
California buckwheat flowers sit atop slender, flexible stems, Laura Lukes
Species Focus - California Buckwheat
Eriogonum fasciculatum, best known as California buckwheat and sometimes called eastern Mojave buckwheat or flat-topped buckwheat, is found primarily on dry slopes and canyon washes in the American West, including Nevada, Utah, and Arizona, in addition to California and reaching as far as Mexico's northwest. In California it is the most widespread of the shrubby buckwheat species, found in abundance in the southern half of our state. It is less common in the Central Valley and northern reaches, although it has proven to be a successful a landscape plant in Butte County. Its adaptation to our Mediterranean climate allows it to survive on as little as seven inches of rain annually.
This buckwheat species is evergreen and blooms from May through October. It can grow to nine feet high and six feet wide (almost as big as its largest family member, the giant buckwheat), but usually reaches around four feet in height and width. E. fasciculatum is a very pretty plant when flowering – its many small, frilly white or pink flower clusters are held aloft on flexible, slender stems above rafts of narrow green leaves. The blossoms turn rusty or burnt orange in color as they dry late in the season, adding muted fall colors to the landscape. Leaves are fuzzy on the underside, and either smooth or fuzzy on top.
California buckwheat (eriogonum fasciculatum), J. Alosi
According to California Native Plants for the Garden (an excellent resource for gardeners looking to shift from traditional thirsty landscaping to a yard that conserves water and sustains pollinators), the hairs on E. fasciculatum's leaves contribute to its ability to withstand the dry and harsh conditions of the ecosystems it inhabits. Hairy leaves provide insulation from heat and protection from direct sunlight as well as a boundary air layer that reduces water loss.
Its genus name, fasciculatum, comes from the Latin word meaning “bundles,” used in botany to refer to the growth habit of plant leaves. It shares this genus name with many other plant species.
California buckwheat makes excellent honey, and the plant is billed as the most important native source of honey in the state. (Honey made from yellow star thistle may be just as delicious, but that plant is an aggressive and invasive intruder!)
California buckwheat thrives among other native plants at the Demonstration Garden, Laura Lukes
Native American peoples in the west and southwest used different parts of the California buckwheat for nutrition and medicine. The Cahuilla tribe of what is now the greater Palm Springs area used this plant in many ways: they treat headaches and stomach pains with tea made from its leaves; treated colds and sore throats with tea made by steeping its roots; and applied poultices made from pounded roots to wounds. Cahuilla peoples also treated heart problems with tea from the dried flowers and dried roots of E. fasciculatum. Modern science has verified that a chemical compound common to several plant species including Eriogonum can be beneficial to hearts (USDA Plant Profile).
The Natural Resources Conservation Service, a division of the US Department of Agriculture, identifies and experiments with natives and other plants for their conservation value - primarily their ability to protect soils from erosion, revegetate burn scars, and provide habitat and sustenance to wildlife as an aid in controlling agricultural pests. Their experiments with California buckwheat show that it has superior value in all three of these categories. The USDA Plant Profile for E. fasciculatum classifies its performance as a conservation plant on critical areas and problem soils as “excellent.” It receives another “excellent” mark for providing “nectar sources for beneficial insects when planted next to crops as part of an (IPM) Integrated Pest Management program.” They recommend the use of its seeds in seed mixes introduced to burn scars for revegetation. Finally, California buckwheat gets USDA bonus points because it is “ideal for environmental enhancement uses” (government-speak for “beautiful in the landscape”).
California buckwheat flowers, J. Alosi
If you plant E.fasciculatum in your yard, be sure to locate it away from regular irrigation sources and in soil that drains well. It will be happy if you give it problem soil (rocky, alkaline, etc.). Make sure it has room to expand or even take over, because it can become invasive. It is an attractive and valuable addition to any drought resistant, native pollinator garden.
A number of buckwheat species, including a large lovely California buckwheat, are thriving in the Butte County Master Gardener Demonstration Garden at Patrick Ranch (located just south of Chico on the Midway). At this time of year, they are abuzz with bees, and visited often by butterflies. Due to our current safety measures, no human visitors are allowed, but we look forward to seeing you there in the future, so you can appreciate the fascinating buckwheat family and our gardens in general.
Giant buckwheat in bloom, J. Alosi
For more information on E. fasciculatum, see the following sources:
United States Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Plants Database
Carol Bornstein, David Fross, and Bart O'Brien, California Native Plants for the Garden (Cachuma Press, 2005)
The UC Master Gardeners of Butte County are part of the University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) system, serving our community in a variety of ways, including 4H, farm advisors, and nutrition and physical activity programs. Master Gardeners bring practical, scientifically-based knowledge directly to our community. For help with gardening in our area, visit our website. If you have a gardening question or problem, call the Master Gardener Hotline at (530) 538-7201 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.