Friday, January 23, 2009

Which buckwheat is that?

Count on it. I spy a few patches of green poking their way up through the earth and immediately begin thinking of flowers -- particularly wildflowers. Which for some unfathomable reason reminded me of my favorite mystery plant, one I am pretty sure is a buckwheat (eriogonum), American-style as opposed to buckwheat, European or pancake style.

This grey-green shrubby perennial is found all over the Prescott area. About 12" high, it begins to grow long leafless stems in mid to late summer, which will suddenly turn into white fluffy displays at the end of summer.

As the season wears on, the flowers gradually turn a brilliant rust color.

Close-up, the flower clusters are really quite pretty. This plant has frustrated me for years -- it is so very common here but I've yet to find a picture or a description in any of my layman's field manuals. However, my favorite A Field Guide to the Plants of Arizona by Anne Orth Epple, did have this to say: almost all species of eriogonum are difficult to identify, even for the expert botanist. For the amateur, simply recognizing wild buckwheat as such is an accomplishment. So there! Epple says that there are 53 species of eriogonum in Arizona. (Note: No doubt the plant is described in McDougall, but that's for the real pro's among us, not me.) Just incidentally, one plant list referred specifically to a Yavapai County buckwheat variety common in the Prescott area.

Walking along a neighborhood alleyway this past summer, I noticed that a tallish, straggly plant most people would label a weed was putting out the same kind of long, leafless stalk preparatory to blooming. Aha! Likely another buckwheat, sez I.

Once the plants blossomed, I broke off a few stems to photograph up close in my kitchen table studio. These flowers, BTW, are really quite tiny. But again, quite pretty, even spectacular if you're snail or grasshopper or bumblebee size.

The buckwheat that the gardener is going to find at such wildflower outlets as Flagstaff Native Plant & Seed is the showy sulphur buckwheat, which is quite common in the high country. The best specimens that I have seen were at the top of Mingus. I tried one plant -- and failed miserably. (FYI, this post is dedicated to my aggie SIL, who first turned me onto the buckwheat family.)

Follow Up: I posted a query to the AZPlants mailing list and received this response from an individual at New Mexico State University, the first 8 [pictures] look to be Eriogonum wrightii, while the next three are probably Eriogonum polycladon. With a label, I was able to check further in my little southwestern library and struck gold. Judy Mielke writes in Native Plants for Southwestern Landscapes, Wright Buckwheat blooms after many other desert plants have finished, so it can be used in flower gardens to extend the flowering season. A mass planting could be used for ground cover on either flat areas or slopes. A good suggestion; my plants are up the hillside, though I could do with a lot more plants to achieve that ground cover look. BTW, any Valley residents -- the Wrights is happiest at 3000-7000 ft. elevation, which probably lets it out as a good candidate for Phoenix gardens.


Anonymous said...

They are quite lovely.

Thanks for the photos; I never gave buckwheat much thought.

Now, I'll stop and ponder the buckwheat on the road sides.

~Anon in AV.

azlaydey said...

What amazing photos of a plant that looks so insignificant. I have some plants in my yard, and I've never been sure of what they are. Thanks again for your interesting articles.

Granny J said...

anon av -- that's why I'm so surprised that they aren't in any of my field guides! It may be that the plant itself is so dang hard to get a good picture of...

azlaydey -- I'll bet you have some buckwheats out there in Chino... they're all over the lot.

Kate/High Altitude Gardening said...

Love those close ups. All, of your photos, really. Is it a definite native?? Think it might be native to Utah? If so, please send seeds! Hope all is well. - Kate :)

Granny J said...

kate -- it very definitely is a native & that includes Utah, according to my references. 7000 ft. appears to be the upper limit. I've never tried to collect seeds -- suspect they're pretty small, but I'll try this next year. I have a lot of the plants up my hill & I tried to dig one up. Hah! They seem to come on a long woody stem, whose roots are no doubt near the center of the earth, like so many plants up here. I did a quick Google to see if there were any nurseries that carry the plant & found one wholesaler down near Phx who might -- the outfit deals only with landscapers. I don't know if I've ever seen a seedling! But I'll keep sniffing around the subject.

Omegadad said...

Thanks for the dedication, MOM.

My personal favorite, by the way, is Desert Trumpet...
...which I remember fondly from my days working in the Mojave.

Just to get an idea of how many buckwheats there be, I suggest your readers go to and search by common name for 'buckwheat'. The search returns an impressive list.


Granny J said...

sil -- yeah, we were always fascinated by the Desert Trumpet, though I think our prolific Wrightii deserves more recognition by the native plant folk. As for the huge buckwheat count, that's why I went to the AzPlants list for ID help.

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