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All About Growing Eriogonum, a Native California Plant

Buckwheat, Eriogonum

If you’re trying to plant more responsibly and sustainably, and also want your garden to thrive with less fuss, consider adding some wild buckwheat to your beds. I was introduced to these useful shrubs and sub-shrubs when I brought home a few 4-inch pots of red buckwheat from Annie’s Annuals & Perennials. I planted one in my garden and the rest in my clients’ gardens, and have, along with the pollinators, continued to admire them.

Before we jump in, I need to clarify that the buckwheat I am writing about is not the gluten-free buckwheat that you might bake with (that’s the European cultivated Fagopyrum esculentum), nor is it the wild buckwheat, Fallopia convolvulus, that is commonly called black-bindweed. I’m talking about the California native buckwheat, Eriogonum, that supports over 250 different species and is hardy is USDA Zones 7-10. What draws me to these plants is that they not only have charming blossoms in a range of colors (yellow, creamy white, pink, or red), but they also provide important food sources for bees, birds, butterflies, and other pollinators from spring through fall.

Red buckwheat (Eriogonum grande rubescens). Photograph by JKehoe_Photos via Flickr.
Above: Red buckwheat (Eriogonum grande rubescens). Photograph by JKehoe_Photos via Flickr.

And whether in bloom and out of bloom, these plants can hold their own in a garden setting that receives a good amount of sun, receives minimal amounts of water, and has well draining soil. I like to pair these unthirsty shrubs with plants that have the same temperament—think sage, yarrow, ceanothus, and penstemon.

The key to planting buckwheat—and come to think of it, planting any plant—is to first understand the plant’s origins and then see if your garden replicates those conditions. So for example, red buckwheat is native to the Channel Islands in Southern California, so it appreciates exposed rocky conditions with lean soil. In the beginning of my buckwheat journey, I made the mistake of babying them (I’m a mother, after all) and added too much compost to the planting area. Quickly my little buckwheats suffered from pampering and died. What I quickly learned is that these plants like lean soil and actually thrive on some neglect.

Pro tip: If after several years your plants get too rangy looking, simply replace them with new small starts. The best time to plant/replant (as with most natives) is in the fall, when rainy days will help your plants develop a hardy root system.

Favorite Buckwheats

&#8\2\16;Ella Nelson&#8\2\17;s Yellow&#8\2\17; Buckwheat is \$\13.95 at Annie&#8\2\17;s Annuals & Perennials.
Above: ‘Ella Nelson’s Yellow’ Buckwheat is $13.95 at Annie’s Annuals & Perennials.

I purchased my first buckwheats at Annie’s Annuals & Perennials, which carries quite a few wild buckwheats, including these three favorites:

  • ‘Red buckwheat’, Eriogonum grande rubescens. This magnificent low shrub (1′ x 3′) sports spoon-shaped leaves and bursts with dark pink/crimson red pompom blooms in June and continuing through October if deadheaded. This plant looks lovely massed along a path edge or border. Hardy to 15 degrees F.
  • Giant buckwheat, Eriogonum giganteum. This grey-green evergreen shrub is commonly called St. Catherine’s Lace and is considered the grande dame of the species. Give this showy plant plenty of space to reach its full potential (4-8′ tall and almost as wide). Expect extra large sprays of creamy white flowers heads that resemble lacy doilies and that attract bees, butterflies, and other tiny beneficial insects. Added bonus: birds snack on the seeds plus use the large plants for shelter.
  • ‘Ella Nelson’s Yellow’, Eriogonum nudum. Growing to 3′ high and 2′ wide, this plant explodes in the spring with the cutest yellow pompom flowers. Makes a unique cut flower.

Cheat Sheet

The combination of white sage and buckwheat is on this list of \1\1 Favorite Native Plant Combinations.
Above: The combination of white sage and buckwheat is on this list of 11 Favorite Native Plant Combinations.
  • Great in dry, native, habitat, or cottage gardens. Also useful massed on hillsides as they are great for erosion control.
  • Attracts bees and butterflies by the bunches and provides important late summer food for pollinators.
  • Mostly deer-resistant but I have seen the flower tops munched off by desperate deer.
  • Prune fresh or dried flowers to hang upside down for later use in flower arrangements.

Keep It Alive

A 4-inch pot of Red Buckwheat is \$\1\2.95 at Annie&#8\2\17;s Annuals & Perennials.
Above: A 4-inch pot of Red Buckwheat is $12.95 at Annie’s Annuals & Perennials.

  • Most prefer a sunny spot for full growth and less legginess.
  • Once established they need very little water. Pro tip: overwatering will definitely push them over the edge.
  • Fast draining soil is important, meaning sandy, rocky, or gravelly. Too much rich compost is disliked.
  • A gravel mulch is preferred to avoid stem rot.
  • After flowering, the blooms fade to attractive fall-hued colors.
  • Prune to shape when they are young.
  • Sow seeds in sand or potting mix and keep moist until germination. Next, let seedlings dry out between waterings and then transplant into larger pots before setting out in fall.

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