The Lovely Wild Buckwheats – Eriogonum in the Garden – an interview with John Whittlesey, Canyon Creek Nursery & Design

It’s August. It’s hot and dry in interior northern California and in most cases, our gardens are looking a little…worn, a little worse for the wear of our long, hot, dry summers. Every gardener I know, prefaces a high or late summer visit to their garden with the warning: “You can come, but you won’t be seeing the garden at its best, you know.” Photo: Eriogonum umbellatum and coyote mint (Monardella spp.) in the wild of California’s Monitor Pass. Photo courtesy of John Whittlesey, copyright 2010.

High summer and late summer are when many of our native or drought tolerant and heat loving plants can and should shine. Especially those plants adapted to the arid North American West, are just such plants. And for me, the wild buckwheats, of the Eriogonum genus, are top choices. Photo: Eriogonum species feeding native butterflies in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming.

John Whittlesey, well-known plantsman, owner of Canyon Creek Nursery and Design, specializing in the design and installation of water wise gardens and greywater systems talks to us this week about wild buckwheats: those eye-catching puffs, and often blankets, of color ranging from white to cream to acid yellow to pink to red, you might see on hikes throughout our region, and blooming (sometimes it seems without stop) in our native or drought tolerant gardens from early June through October. Photo: Eriogonum umbellatum along a trail in California’s Warner Mountains. Photo courtesy of John Whittlesey, copyright 2010.

“I like buckwheats – eriogonum – I can’t get enough of seeing and admiring them on hikes,” John tells me. “On a hike I took last month in the Warner Mountains (northeast corner of California) at least 8 species were blooming. On the top of south Yolla Bolly (west of Red Bluff), even more recently, 3 species were growing alongside scarlet paintbrush (Castilleja spp.) and azure blue penstemons. I admire the buckwheats for their tenacity, growing on the slimmest of soils on the windiest exposed peaks, and they always look fresh, whether in foliage, full flowering or going to seed. On White Mountain (elevation 14,000 feet on the California-Nevada border at about California’s mid-point) there was a very tight silver matted species with strawberry colored blooms.” Photo: Plantsman John Whittlesey looking over an Eriogonum fasciculatum in bloom in August at the Chico Creek Nature Center in Chico, CA.

“Not only do buckwheats have cheerful flowers along a trail or in a garden,” John says, “they also attract a variety of native bees and small butterflies. On the hike in the Warner Mountains, our group stopped several times to watch all the buzzing and hovering among the mass of yellow blooms.” Almost all species of eriogonum are considered important sources of food – both food for larval development and sustaining nectar and pollen – for our native and non-native pollinators, especially in the late summer months when other food sources have passed. Photo: A close up of the lovely detail involved in the blossoms of Eriogonum fasciculatum.

Photo: A close up of the detail in the blossoms of Eriogonum grande var. rubescens. Most Eriogonum also make long-lasting and interesting cut flowers.

Botany:

The genus Eriogonum belongs to the so-called ‘knotweed’ family, Polygonaceae, and is currently designated as belonging to the subfamily Eriogonoideae. Edible buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum) is an important food crop originating from Eurasia and is in the same botanical family. While species of eriogonum do occur elsewhere, the genus is strongly associated with the American West, with the greatest number of species occurring in California.

According to the “Jepson Manual of Higher Plants of California,” Eriogonum is the largest dicot genus in California – named from the Greek for ‘woolly knees,’ as a result of the hairy nodes of some of the eriogonum, particularly the earliest ones described. According to international Eriogonum expert, Dr. James Reveal, writing in the North American Flora Project: “As a native North American genus, Eriogonum (ca. 250) is second only to Penstemon (ca. 250). Ecologically, species of Eriogonum occur from the seashore to the highest mountains in the United States. They are among the last plants seen atop the Sierra Nevada and on the “outskirts” of Badwater in Death Valley. The United States Department of the Interior currently lists some as endangered or threatened species. Some species tend to be weedy, and some of the annual species are aggressively so.” Photo: Eriogonum species blooming beside rabbit brush (Chrysothamnus spp.) at Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho.

In part because of the rich diversity within the genus, and because the genus and its relatives have “undergone rapid evolution in arid regions of western North America,” according to Dr. Reveal, botanists are particularly enamored of this group of plants. The groups’ classification system is always being evaluated for possible restructuring.

Care and Cultivation in the Garden:

In the garden John recommends planting eriogonum in full sun – no less than 6 hours a day, in well-draining soild. “Fertilizing is usually considered a no-no with natives,” John says and “especially with the eriogonum and low growing subshrubs or perennials. While a mulch of gravel to improve drainage is not required, it does work well with such dryland plants. If you are growing one of the trickier more alpine species of Eriogonum, then it would be worth it to blend the gravel in the top few inches of soil.” Photo: Eriogonum species blooming beside rabbit brush (Chrysothamnus spp.) at Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho.

John goes on to emphasize: “With these kinds of natives what I’d be most careful of is making sure to not water at the base of the plant. I try to place emitters between 4″ and 6″ inches to the side of the plant. If you are working on a drip system you could water 2 – 3 times per week and as little as once every 10 days or 2 weeks, to keep them looking fresh. They could of course, survive on less, but one of the nice things about many of the good garden Eriogonum is how tolerant or forgiving they are if they do get some water in summer in normal garden conditions. They are less picky this way than many other dryland, native plants. If you need to prune for form or looks – cut back some each year rather than wait for your plants to get too leggy.” Photo: Eriogonum species blooming in the Three Sisters Wilderness of the Willamette National Forest, Oregon.

Two Colorado-based home gardeners and plant enthusiasts, Hugh MacMillan and Bob McFarlane, described to me their home gardens – each of which boasts somewhere between 30 and 40 species of buckwheat. These two men met in a meeting of the North American Rock Garden Society and later in the American Penstemon Society. After they realized their mutual regard for the multitude of Eriogonum, in 2008, they began the formation of the Eriogonum Society whose objectives are 1) enjoying and promoting the use of these plants in the garden. 2) Enjoying and evaluating eriogonums in the wild. 3) Assembling, developing and sharing information on the propagation, cultivation, identification and distribution of the eriogonum species. 4) Providing a seed exchange to distribute eriogonum species seed for use in gardens. 5) Protecting rare and endangered species of eriogonums. 6) Advancing the overall understanding of eriogonum from a scientific perspective. Photo: Eriogonum species blooming in the Three Sisters Wilderness of the Willamette National Forest, Oregon.

The society had their inaugural meeting in Reno, Nevada in June of this year. Members from around the country attended to hear Dr. Reveal speak on the complexity – and fun – of indentifying species in the wild. The group took field trips around the Reno area to see plants in the wild and in home gardens. For the purpose of the meeting, Dr. Reveal developed a more than 200 page manual on the identification of Eriogonum for attendees. The next Eriogonum Society meeting is planned for Bishop, California in August of 2011. Photo: Eriogonum umbellatum and Calachortus in the wild of California’s Warner Mountains. Photo courtesy of John Whittlesey, copyright 2010.

Hugh MacMillan lives near Sedalia, Colorado at an elevation of 6,350. Bob McFarlane lives at 5,400’ in a Denver suburb – and the two gardeners illustrate the range of care that wild buckwheats will tolerate in a home garden. Hugh never feeds his, does not prune them and has watered his no more than 3 times this summer. Bob feeds his with a small dose of all-purpose fertilizer each spring, he waters his as part of his regular garden once a week, though the plants do have very good drainage, and he cuts his back as needed. The men express to me that perhaps one of the most exciting things about the development of the Eriogonum Society is the potential for seed exchange (open to members only) of good garden selections, because so few species or varieties are currently available in the mainstream nursery trade. Photo: Snow Mountain buckwheat Eriogonum nervulosum. Photo courtesy of John Whittlesey, copyright 2010.

In terms of good planting companions, John Whittlesey recommends pairing buckwheats with “plants they might be found with in the wild, or those that will enjoy similar conditions: coyote mints (Monardella spp.), Penstemon heterophyllus cultivars, Nepeta, Achillea, Teucrium, dwarf english lavenders, asters, lupines and low grasses, will all look well paired with buckwheats.” Photo: Eriogonum umbellatum with many good companions in California’s Warner Mountains. Photo courtesy of John Whittlesey, copyright 2010.

Propagation:

If you are interested in trying to propagate some of your own eriogonum, according to John, “division is not the chosen method. Rather try to sow from seed or take cuttings, which are surprisingly easy despite the fact that Eriogonum have atypical stems without consistent nodes. To take a cutting, choose a non-flowering stem, mid-spring before bloom or late- summer/early-fall, after bloom. Cut below or between nodes if you can, and follow standard rooting procedure by trimming off lowest leaves on the cutting, dip in rooting hormone and place in well-draining medium. Eriogonum are not difficult to root. Allow 3 – 5 weeks.” He goes on to point out that matting varieties will “spread by runners and root as they go, you can cut these rooted runners and plant them as new plants as well.” Photo: Eriogonum species. Photo courtesy of John Whittlesey, copyright 2010.

Bob McFarlane starts a good many of his plants from seed, some are easy – some are less predictable. He generally soaks his seed in water for 24 hours, then places the seeds in a plastic bag with soil-less planting mix and places this in the refrigerator for a month. After this chill period, he sows the seeds in soil-less planting mix in pots and places these outside on the north side of his house where they will stay consistently cold until spring, at which time he moves them into a hoop house to grow on. This “mimicking of the seeds’ natural experience works pretty well” for him, although it is not 100% reliable. “One of the things I look forward to sharing among Eriogonum Society members is information on how to germinate and grow different seed successfully,” he said. Photo: Eriogonum lobbii Lobb’s buckwheat blooming high on Lassen Peak.

Photo: The persistent cinnamon seedheads of Eriogonum fasciculatum providing winter forage for visiting birds and winter interest for the gardener’s eyes – here at the McConnell Arboretum and Botanical Garden in Redding.

A final botanical note:

Dr. Reveal notes that within the state of California, CalTrans is planting Eriogonum fasciculatum var. foliolosum around the state; and it is also now showing up along highways in Arizona.” This tendency sends up red flags for botanists regarding how introduced species of the plants from one area to other area in which those introductions were not originally found could upset the integrity of a regions wild populations. Reveal writes that “more of a problem in southern California (Monterey County south but slowing moving northward) is the island endemic E. giganteum. It will hybridize with another island endemic, E. arborescense on the mainland when the two come into contact. It also hybridizing with the coastal E. cinereum, and that is a major problem especially around Santa Barbara County. I have seen the var. foliolosum spreading rapidly in the San Francisco area, and is now found frequently in the foothills of the inner Coast Range north into Siskiyou County. Because the species, and in particular this variety, are excellent sources of honey for wild and domesticated bees, that too is another reason it is being spread by humans. To what extent this will be a problem in the future is not known as yet.”

For home gardeners considering adding buckwheats, it might be wise to consider how close you live to wild populations and if crossing might be an issue.

Garden Selections: Good species of Eriogonum for North State Gardens – valley, foothill and higher altitude – include: Photo: Eriogonum umbellatum in California’s Warner Mountains. Photo courtesy of John Whittlesey, copyright 2010.

Eriogonum umbellatum ‘Shasta sulfur’, mid-sized compact rounded form that will spread and has striking bright yellow blossoms;

Eriogonum umbellatum var. bahiformis ‘Serpentine sulfur flower’ has bright yellow flowers and grows 3 – 5’ high and wide.

E. fasciculatum aka ‘California buckwheat’ – a strong form with needle-like leaves up and down the stems and is covered with white blooms late into summer and fall. Can grow up to 6’ tall and wide. The flowers are followed by cinnamon colored dried seedheads which persist and add interest to the winter garden.

E. fasciculatum var. foliolosum – similar to California buckwheat, but more compact – growing closer to 3’ 3’.

E. giganteum ‘St. Catherine’s Lace’ is a large specimen with eye-catching silver-white foliage and much broader, white flower heads. It can grow up to 6’ by 6’.

E. grande var ‘Rubescens’; is a low matting variety with silvery foliage and warm pink flowers. It grows 8” high and more than 2’ wide.

E. nudum is a matting variety with tall (up to 24’) slender, leafless red-tinged stems topped by sweet little white pom-pom heads.

E. ovalifolium is a low growing, compact silver leaved variety whose flower stems are perhaps 2 – 4”. This variety is particularly sweet in a rock garden setting. Photo: Eriogonum ovalifolium var. nivale in the home garden of Hugh McMillan. Photo courtesy of Hugh McMillan, copyright 2010.

Sources for Eriogonum plants and seeds:

John Whittlesey – Canyon Creek Nursery & Design – specializing in Water Wise Gardens and Greywater Systems Contact: johnccn@sunset.net 530-774-4955

Floral Native Nursery, Chico, Ca

The Nursery at the McConnell Arboretum & Botanical Gardens at Turtle Bay, Redding

Las Pilitas, Escondido and Santa Margarita, Ca

Rebecca Lance- Granite Gardens Rare Plants, Sonora, Ca

Sunscapes Rare Plant Nursery – Pueblo, Co

Most of our regional independent nurseries will have one or two varieties as well – call your local nursery and ask!

For more information on Eriogonum see the Eriogonum Society website, or read the works James Reveal or Roger Raiche of Planet Horticulture on-line.

Finally, the California Native Plant Society website good information on Eriogonum in their Growing Natives section.

Photo: Eriogonum fasciculatum blooms.


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Jennifer Jewell
In a North State Garden is a bi-weekly North State Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California and made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum - Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell - all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday morning at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time, two times a month.
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5 Responses

  1. Avatar Susan Krzywicki says:

    What a great article! Thanks for giving such deep coverage. I have several eriogoum plants that are humming along – and this article encourages me to use them more frequently with clients and at home. I've bought from Las Pilitas in Escondido and they are GREAT!

  2. Jennifer Jewell Jennifer Jewell says:

    Thanks for the kind words and note Susan – and that's great to hear about Las Pilatas, I have never purchased from them, but I really like their website, which is very informative and broad in its plant selections for our natives. Glad your buckwheats are so happy, too – humming is just the right word! Jennifer

  3. Avatar Blake Wellard says:

    I have an identification for the Erogonum species – Photo courtesy of John Whittlesey, copyright 2010.

    Plant is actually not an Eriogonum or Polygonaceae at all. The plant is Calyptridium umbellatum in the Portulacaceae family. I spent several hours working on the ID of this species this summer. It has the roots of a lewisia and seems to be edible as well.

    Common name is Pussy Paws. Its a beautiful plant. Rarely collected (Utah)

    • Jennifer Jewell Jennifer Jewell says:

      Thanks for the comment, Blake. That's interesting information and I will pass this comment on to John Whittlesey and the Eriogonum Society. Sounds like you are doing some interesting research – keep it up!

  4. Excellent and informative article on this beautiful and fascinating genus. thank you!

    I noticed too that you had the Calyptridium – pussy paws photo in there. they are actually very closely related to buckwheats. if you’d like a photo of Eriogonum lobbii, you are welcome to use this one:

    https://flic.kr/p/feykSW