By Lisa Marun, UCCE San Diego County Master Gardener.
Can I get your attention by suggesting that you grow some wooly knees? Eriogonum (erion meaning “wool” and gonu meaning “knee” or “joint” in Greek) is wild buckwheat, and it is a superb native plant choice for San Diego gardens.
Let’s start with the fact that unlike common, or European, buckwheat (Fagopyrum), about 250 species of Eriogonum are native to the American southwest and northwestern Mexico. Though we’ll mostly focus here on California buckwheat, many other Eriogonum species also historically populated the canyons, slopes, and washes that make up California’s coastal sage scrub ecosystems.
With urbanization, these natural habitats are dwindling. As such, incorporating wild buckwheat into your landscape is a way to connect with the history of our natural local landscape while also perpetuating its future.
Of the four identified varieties of California buckwheat (E. fasciculatum), three called San Diego home long before you and I were here. As with wild buckwheats in general, interior California buckwheat (var. polifolium), leafy California buckwheat (var. foliolosum), and coastal California buckwheat (var. fasciculatum) vary in color (from bright green to gray foliage) and shape (tending to be more dense and mounding near the coast).
California buckwheat varieties, as well as other Eriogonum locals, are drought-tolerant choices for San Diego gardens that will rarely, if ever, require water beyond what Mother Nature provides, especially once they are established.
Taking it easy
Wild buckwheats are also very easy to grow. Both new gardeners as well as seasoned horticulturists appreciate these California-friendly plants.
Native buckwheats thrive in poor soil and sunny spots, and many will happily take up residence in the cracks and crevices where none of your fussier plants would thrive. They are great candidates for niches in rock faces, they willingly provide erosion control services on slopes, and the gathering of a nice mix of different species could easily form the basis of a wildlife and habitat restoration project.
Yes, you can show off your bloomers!
Many Eriogonum species, including California buckwheat, will thrill you with mostly-white flower clusters in the spring, which will blush pink in the summer, and rust out in the fall. These chocolaty ferrous blots of color aren’t quitters either, and they will hold on until the next spring when a fresh set of white flowers begins the annual display again. Alas, we are not the only ones to be wowed by Eriogonum’s many virtues. They are positively among the best pollinator plants around. Since they are native to our area, they have naturally co-evolved with many of our local pollinator populations.
Native butterflies, bees, and birds are drawn like magnets to these plants, and you are sure to enjoy the kaleidoscope of flapping and fluttering wings and the busy buzzing that will surround your wild buckwheat. According to pollination ecologist Dr. Keng-Lou James Hung, currently postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto, “because of [its] generalist nature, buckwheat could benefit a very large diversity of pollinators that may enter urban gardens.”
As part of Dr. Hung’s thesis work at the University of California, San Diego, he documented insect pollinators of 53 plant species in coastal sage scrub habitats. Of the approximately 400 pollinator species observed, over half of them were seen foraging on California buckwheat. In his experience, California buckwheat “is among the most important plant species in [San Diego] for sustaining both the diversity and abundance of [its] native pollinator populations!”
Depending on where you live, an assortment of Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths), including various metalmarks and hairstreaks, will enjoy your California buckwheat buffet at some point throughout most of the year. Some will be larval guests and others will arrive airborne to fuel up on nectar. One such flier that’s endemic to San Diego County and parts of Baja California is the Hermes copper butterfly (Lycaena hermes), which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently proposed listing as threatened.
California buckwheat is also a tasty attraction for native
bees. Tiny specialist bees, including Macrotera tristella and Perdita claypolei, are commonly seen foraging amongst California buckwheats. Given the alarming state of our local bee populations, providing these host plants in your garden would be a powerful way to make a positive contribution to these insects’ conservation.
To top it all off, Eriogonum seeds tempt many bird species, and the plants also attract beneficial insects—the ones that eat the bugs you don’t want in your garden—including the very large predator tarantula hawk wasps (Pepsis sp.).
Finally, if you’re ready to try some wooly-kneed gardening, I suggest you refer to California Native Plant Society’s online resource, Calscape. They’ll help you narrow down the species that would be best suited for your location and preferences, as well as a list of nurseries that carry them.
UCCE San Diego County Master Gardener, Lisa Marun's life purpose is to empower communities to be effective environmental stewards. She leads and engages people to live in a way that nurtures the people and environments they care about, including their own plants and gardens. She also learns from and trains a wide range of domestic and non-domestic animals so that they can live more enriched, healthy lives.