Have you ever eaten American buckwheat pancakes, kasha, Japanese soba noodles, Russian blinis, French galettes (savory crêpes) and wondered, "What is this ingredient buckwheat anyway?!"
Despite the common name, and the grainlike use of the crop, buckwheat is not related to wheat and is not a grass. It is considered a pseudocereal. Fagopyrum esculentum (known as the common buckwheat) was first domesticated and cultivated in Southeast Asia, and over the past several thousand years it has spread worldwide. The seeds of the plant are ground into a flour, which is gluten-free. In France, F. esculentum is known as sarrasin, and the flour is called blé noir (black wheat). It is also used as a short-season cover crop, suppressing weeds and attracting beneficial insects and pollinators with its abundant blossoms.
But wait, you thought this was a column about American native plants? Here's where common names can confuse us.
Buckwheat is the common name for plants in two genera of the family Polygonaceae: the common domesticated Eurasian genus, Fagopyrum (described above), and a North American genus, Eriogonum, the wild buckwheat. The genus Eriogonum comprises some 250 species confined to the North American continent with nearly 225 found in the United States and Canada. Ecologically, species of Eriogonum occur from the seashore to the highest mountains.
Why the common name? "Buckwheat," or "beech wheat," comes from the triangular seeds of both the common and wild species, which resemble the much larger seeds of the beechnut from the beech tree, and because it is used like wheat. The Latin genus name of the wild buckwheats is derived from the Greek words erion, wool, and gony, knee, alluding to the hairy nodes of the species first described, E. tomentosum. Distinguishing features of many buckwheats are flowers with no petals but six sepals, which can be mistaken for petals; 6-9 elongated stamens; basal rosettes of hairy leaves; and umbels of flowers (think parasol-shaped) topping tall stems. The plants can be annuals or perennials.
Flowering plants of Eriogonum are sources of nectar for a number of butterfly and moth species, including several endangered ones, as well as for honeybees, which in turn yield a dark-colored honey. Wild buckwheat has a long history of aboriginal use. Carbonized seeds and flower parts have been discovered at many Ancestral Puebloan hearth sites in the Four Corners area.
Today, several members of the genus are in cultivation, especially in rock or alpine gardens. They love hot, dry environments and range in size from small herbaceous plants to woody shrubs with flower colors ranging from white and cream with green stripes to yellow and red. E. umbellatum (sulfur-flower buckwheat) is a favorite with its bright yellow flower clusters, and several cultivars are prized for their showy seed heads late in their blooming season.
Join us Wednesday evening (May 16) when Bob Pennington from Santa Fe will talk about "Wild Buckwheats of Northern New Mexico" at our monthly meeting. Learn about the many wild buckwheat species found in the western U.S. and how to recognize the ones found in Northern New Mexico. Pennington co-founded Agua Fria Nursery in Santa Fe in 1975. He is a founding member of the Santa Fe Botanical Garden and a state instructor for the New Mexico Certified Nursery Professionals.
Calendar for Native Plant Society-New Mexico Chapter
Join in on the fun and support the education and outreach efforts of the Native Plant Society of New Mexico: npsnm.org/about/join/
Our monthly meetings, open to the public, are usually held on the third Wednesday at 6 p.m. in the boardroom, Kit Carson Electric Cooperative, 118 Cruz Alta Rd. Look for updates on our chapter webpage, npsnm.org/about/chapters/taos, or our Facebook page (search for "Native Plant Society New Mexico Taos Chapter"), or call (575) 751-0511.
Videos of past meetings can be found at: tinyurl.com/mhds73l