By David Salman, High Country Gardens Founder and Chief Horticulturist
The Eriogonum (pronounced eri-o-gonum) are a wonderfully beautiful and beneficial group of plants. Commonly known as the Sulfur Buckwheats, I have come to really rely on them to provide my gardens. Their long-lasting color and upright structure are a beautiful addition to garden designs, and they provide nectar and pollen for bees, butterflies, and beneficial insects.
My initial encounters with the genus many years ago has fostered an ever-growing appreciation for this large native genus. This plant expresses their greatest variety of forms in the western US, with Utah representing the epicenter of Eriogonum diversity. As a hobbyist rock gardener, I’m thrilled to acquire an ever-growing collection of these miniature shrubs.
Companion Planting With Buckwheats
As ornamental perennials/subshrubs (small woody plants), they are dependable garden plants in terms of cold hardiness, ease of cultivation and reliable blooming with flowers that turn into attractive seed heads. The flowers and seed heads will often color the plants for a long season from early summer into fall.
Most are evergreen or semi-evergreen shrubs that have attractive foliage that is usually fuzzy, spoon-shaped, often gray or gray-green foliage. They are long-lived, getting more beautiful with each passing year. They are also easy-to-grow happiest when rooted into “lean” (infertile), well-drained soil in sunny, hot conditions.
As a xeric gardener and perennial enthusiast, I feel the Sulfur Buckwheats are the perfect companion for other favorite plants like Lavender (Lavandula), Penstemon (or Beardtongues), cacti and succulents like Agave, Yucca, and Hesperaloe, and even South African beauties like Red Hot Poker (Kniphofia).
The larger growing varieties are wonderful companions for miniature and dwarf conifers (small growing pines, spruces, fir), and add wonderful splashes of color to conifer plantings. Yes, they are incredibly versatile.
Buckwheats Are Pollinator Paradise
I feel in general that the Buckwheats are woefully underutilized, both ornamentally and as important plants for providing habitat in the garden. Eriogonum is a fantastic genus of wildflowers when it comes to attracting and feeding bees and butterflies and many species of beneficial insects. Everyone should be planting to provide habitat for pollinators (butterflies, honey bees, bumblebees, and other native bees, and hummingbirds) as well as other insects and birds.
Eriogonum are an essential bee plant as they are an outstanding nectar and pollen source for bees. Eriogonum is also an important genus for attracting beneficial insects to protect the garden from aphids and other injurious insects. Beneficial insects prey on injurious insects like aphids, spider mites, and other garden pests, and contribute to a healthier garden - naturally.
I'm not an ornithologist, but I suspect their grain-like seeds are also eaten by many bird species.
Tips For Growing Buckwheat
The genus is very easy to grow as long as the plants are matched with a low fertility ("lean"), well drained soil.
Rocky and sandy soils that are challenging for establishing new plants are perfect for the Buckwheats.
Many perennial Buckwheats take at least two growing seasons to reach mature size. When happy, most are long lived.
They generally don't need much supplemental irrigation once established even in arid climates.
Mulching is best done with crushed gravel, pine needles, crushed nut shells and other very course textured materials; no compost, shredded leaves or other moisture retentive mulches.
I fertilize lightly once in the fall scratching in a dry organic type that contains alfalfa meal, kelp meal, rock phosphate and trace minerals.
Huge, flat-topped flower clusters create a dome of bright yellow color over the large attractive gray-green leaves of 'Little Rascal' Buckwheat (Eriogonum allenii). Blooming throughout the summer and into fall, it is highly attractive to butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds. This low-care buckwheat is more moisture tolerant than most and can be grown across much of the US when planted in full sun and well drained soils.
This incredible native wildflower, Eriogonum umbellatum 'Poncha Pass Red' (Poncha Pass Red Sulfur Buckwheat) is a very durable, long lived miniature shrub that blooms with bright yellow flower clusters that ripen to dark red seed heads by late summer. Drought resistant/drought tolerant plant (xeric). 2014 Plant of the Year.
Kannah Creek Buckwheat hails from western Colorado. With a showy display of yellow flowers in late spring, the flowers age to shades of orange and rust by late summer, providing months of low care color. A 2007 Plant Select winner. Drought resistant/drought tolerant plant (xeric).