By Tanya Kucak
Native buckwheats are the “iconic plant of the West,” according to landscape designer Pete Veilleux, and the most prolific species in California, with nearly 500 varieties and subspecies. They are all “wonderful in the garden,” he said.
Veilleux runs East Bay Wilds Native Plants Nursery and also designs, installs and maintains native gardens. Since he was 10 years old, Veilleux said, he’s been a “gardener looking for plants in the wild” and experimenting with them in gardens. He spoke to the Gardening with Natives group of the California Native Plant Society earlier this month in a talk titled “Native Buckwheats: Bonbons for Bees.”
You may have eaten buckwheat or kasha, or grown buckwheat as a cover crop. It’s in the same family as native buckwheats but in the genus Fagopyrum, whereas native buckwheats are in the genus Eriogonum.
Most native buckwheats are perennials that flower a long time, from approximately July until the first freeze. They are the “best bee food you can have – both the pollen and the nectar are excellent,” Veilleux said. All but a handful require full sun, and most prefer dry conditions once they are established.
Two commonly grown species tolerate shade, though they need at least one to two hours of direct sun to flower well, Veilleux noted: Santa Cruz Island buckwheat and Conejo buckwheat. Santa Cruz Island buckwheat “flowers forever in shade,” he said, and can show leaf burn in too much sun. He likes to plant low-growing, yellow-flowering Conejo buckwheat under trees, though he said it “can take full sun just fine.” A third species, Nakedstem buckwheat, likes some shade but can take three to four hours of sun in the hottest areas.
In general, buckwheats don’t grow quickly. St. Catherine’s Lace, however, grows quickly “with or without water” and is a good choice for a large area to suppress weeds, Veilleux said. He added that it looks “otherworldly” when it’s planted in front of structures that contrast dramatically with the pinkish-white flower clusters atop tall stems.
Buckwheats tolerate dog urine, Veilleux said. They’d seem a natural choice near sidewalks or in parking strips, but because their branches are brittle, it’s best to protect them with other plants. He recommended Santa Cruz Island buckwheat, Conejo buckwheat or California buckwheat in such areas, perhaps coming up through a ground-hugging ceanothus variety.
A couple of species are notable because they are so prolific in the wild along the coast. From San Francisco northward, Coast buckwheat predominates. It grows tight to the ground and has “pretty rosettes” of fuzzy leaves that “look nice even without the flowers,” Veilleux said. From the City southward, Cliff buckwheat predominates. This small-leaved, “very floriferous” species is “the easiest of all buckwheats,” he noted, and reseeds prolifically, so it’s a good choice for an area where it has plenty of room to spread.
A variety of California buckwheat, Warriner Lytle, is a “great groundcover” for hot, sunny slopes, Veilleux said, singling out this variety, California buckwheat and Shasta Sulfur buckwheat as varieties to try where deer predation is a problem.
Excess water can be a problem for many buckwheats. If you want to plant them during the dry season, Veilleux advised checking the soil to discover how often it dries out, then watering slowly approximately 6-8 inches away from the plant and letting the water seep in. If your plants are in a “good growth period,” Veilleux said you can plant them in the sun and water them up to two or three times a week, checking the soil each time to make sure that you’re not overwatering.
For more information, visit the Eriogonum Society at eriogonum.org.