Would you like a well-behaved garden plant that, once established, no longer requires attention, needs little or no water beyond rainfall, is compact and shapely, easily blends into other colors and textures, is attractive at all times of the year to humans and to wildlife, AND is easy to grow? Look into the many kinds of Eriogonum (called buckwheat), the largest genus in California after Carex (sedges).
And such a genus! One would be hard-pressed to come up with another group of plants containing so many eye-catching varieties that make the beholder think how nice it would be to have them in the garden. At the moment, I can’t think of a single species that hasn’t evoked that feeling in me. With 115 species in California, you expect a range of form and color-from the numerous perennials that range from diminutive alpine cushions to four-foot-tall shrubs to those wonderful annuals with red thread-like branches that proliferate on road shoulders in deserts and other arid areas.
Buckwheats have gray, gray-green, or white leaves of pleasing form and texture. Hundreds of tiny flowers are aggregated into dense heads. The flowers are white fading to pink, yellow fading to red, or, occasionally red fading to deeper red. When dried, the flower heads become a subtly eye-catching russet or auburn, which is ideally contrasted by the grayish leaves. Plants look thrifty even at the end of a dry summer.
buckwheat & beeEriogonum culture can be conveyed in two words: sun and drainage. Different species of buckwheat are found all the way from coastal dunes to the highest alpine zones and they are pronounced inhabitants of arid areas, including deserts. With that variety of habitats, it is not to be expected that they are all going to be happy in your garden. Nevertheless, as a group they are very adaptable, and experimentation may prove rewarding. In any event, you will find many that will be happy, with a modicum of attention to their needs.
Start with your local species (always a good idea anyway), which in our area is the beautiful coast buckwheat, Eriogonum latifolium, available at our November plant sale and at the Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Center (HANC) recycling center (at Frederick and Arguello Streets near Kezar Stadium in Golden Gate Park). Nature gives a clue: coast buckwheat grows naturally in sand dunes at Pacifica and Crissy Field, between bushes in coastal scrub, in cracks in the rocks of cliffs, and in grasslands where soil is thin and rocky. I try to imitate nature as much as possible, so I plant its natural companions with it-bunchgrasses, yarrow (Achillea millefolium), dudleya, acaena (Acaena pinnatifida var. californica), clarkias, lupines, poppies, and blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium bellum). If it finds your garden suitable to its needs it may self-sow. It comes up in cracks in the sidewalk in front of my house and I encourage its peregrinations because coast buckwheat provides forage for native bees and butterflies and because its gray and pink tones soften the harsh look of the concrete and harmonize with it. The openness and warmth from the concrete are to its liking, and there is adequate moisture trapped beneath.
There are California buckwheats available in the trade which are not native to our area but which make good garden subjects: Eriogonum arborescens, E. giganteum, E. x blissianum, E. grande var. rubescens, and E. crocatum. The first three are two- to four-foot shrubs; E. grande var. rubescens looks similar to our native, but its flowers are deep pink to red; and E. crocatum has white leaves with chrome-yellow flowers. (Some of these can be seen in the native garden at Strybing Arboretum & Botanical Gardens.) Please avoid planting invasive non-native buckwheats like E. fasciculatum and E. parvifolium. The latter, planted by Caltrans many years ago along Highway 1 through Pacifica, has invaded the dunes at Pacifica State Beach and has almost completely displaced the native E. latifolium. Although native to the coast just a few miles south of Pacifica, E. parvifolium evidently lacks its natural controls here and becomes rambunctious.
I hope to explore this wonderful group of plants more thoroughly in a later article. With or without drought, water is going to be a problem in California’s future because of inexorable population pressures. When that happens, dry gardens will become fashionable, and buckwheats are going to leap into prominence at the head of the crowd in this latest fad.