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  • Jennifer Jewell


Eriogonum 'Grande Rubescens' - a native buckwheat to take your breath away. In my home garden late May.

As we tend toward the Summer Solstice on June 21st - high summer arrives in a hurry here in Northern California.

While my garden may have seemed green and lush and lively to those of you viewing from the depths of winter in other regions in February, March and April - come May and June, we are now edging toward the depths of summer - as it were. This is, for many plants, our other dormant period. Especially for plant life not perfectly adapted and beautifully resilient, or on the artificial life support of irrigation.

Gardens are artifice - there's no argument there. But the spectrum of how much life support is needed and which plants, gardens and landscapes are worth the high costs of such precious resources in arid environments can elicit some fairly intense responses. So the path of least resistance for both low input and high returns, in my experience, is often found on the same path as our native, drought tolerant and heat loving plants. High summer is when these plant companions can really shine.

I love the conversations and heartfelt, conceptual, philosophical topics and reflections Cultivating Place provides for listeners , for me and for guests. There is in fact not much like it out there. I hear this over and over from listeners (of which there've been more than 98,000 of you to date. Woah! Thank you!)

But some weeks I think - and I sometimes think I can hear you all wondering: BUT WHERE ARE THE PLANTS!? BRING IN THE PLANTS!

For any of you who may have thought that: This Love-Letter is for you.

For you and for the genus Eriogonum - also known as the native buckwheats....

California's summer colors from a distance. The deep green of oaks, the honey blond of dried grasses. Get up close and you're far more likely to see the colors and forms of the many summer blooming native plants in environments like this one.

Over the years, if you've followed me for any length of time, you might notice that I occasionally revisit and update my love for this genus. And it's looking so lovely in the garden right now - just warming up (pun intended) to the heat of our arriving summer - that I figured now's the time. In the American west - from the Intermountain West states all the way to the Pacific Ocean - the buckwheats are good garden friends.

They are eye-catching puffs, and often blankets, of color ranging from white to cream to acid yellow, from pale dusky pink to rose pink to deep red. They bloom (sometimes it seems without stop) in our native or drought tolerant gardens from late May through October.

On summer hikes up Mt. Eddy – across the way from Mt. Shasta lying between California’s northern Siskiyou and Trinity counties, I've been amazed at not only the abundance of buckwheats in flower, but also by their diversity. At the suggestion of botanist friend Julie Nelson, I searched Cal Flora's “What Grows Here” online tool and in the course of the hike there were at least 17 different species of buckwheats.

Forming the entirety of the genus Eriogonum, buckwheats are miracles of beauty and resilience. Observing them in the wild provides wonderful inspiration for good garden composition – including companion plants and positioning in terms of drainage and exposure. The tenacious buckwheats grow on the slimmest of soils on the sunniest and windiest of peaks and slopes, and still they look fresh, whether in foliage, flower or seed.

Buckwheats also attract a wide variety of native bees and small butterflies. 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.

Shasta sulfur buckwheat in bloom in John's Canyon Creek garden.

The genus Eriogonum belongs to the so-called ‘knotweed’ family, Polygonaceae. 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 Inter-Mountain West, with the greatest number of species occurring in California.

The “Jepson Manual of Higher Plants of California,” states that Eriogonum is named from the Greek for ‘woolly knees,’ as a result of the hairy nodes of some. According to international Eriogonum expert, Dr. James Reveal: “As a native North American genus, Eriogonum (ca. 250) is second only to Penstemon and different species occur from the seashore to the highest mountains. They are among the last plants seen atop the Sierra Nevada and on the “outskirts” of Death Valley.

While you may or may not be familiar with the name or the genus Eriogonum and so you may write them off as too specialized, I can promise you, once you meet these beautiful resilient flowering plants, you will know they were meant for the gardens of us more generalist floral folk. And even if you live outside of a dry, hot summer environment, you may want to give them a try?

A small, silver-leafed mat forming pink species of Eriogonum growing out of scree on South Yolla Bolly summit.

For more photos of these plants and flowers I love, keep scrolling all the way down - I couldn't help myself.

For lots more information on buckwheats, take a look at the information from the Eriogonum Society (or listen to a wonderful CP interview with the society's botanical consultant, Dr. Ben Grady).

And as you tend toward the solstice in your garden, I wish wonderful happy healthy well-adapted plant companions that expand you and your place, and that you bring one another joy and happiness - that's how the buckwheats are for me in my garden.

If you have plant companions like this that come to mind from your life and garden- send me a note and share your favorites with me! cultivatingplace(at)gmail(dot)com.

Thank you all, as always, for reading/listening - for being on this path and in this conversation.




In June of 2018:

I am always so excited for the upcoming episodes, I sometimes want to get ahead of myself. Let me just say that this month you have a lot to look forward to.

We start off with a preview of Thomas Piper's new film on Piet Oudolf, 'Five Seasons: The Gardens of Piet Oudolf'; a visit to an inspirational school garden in Sacramento led by a passionate educator, Kevin Jordan; a wholehearted celebration of both National Pollinator Week and the sacred Summer Solstice with Dave Goulson, founder of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust; and then a lead up to the birthday of the founding of the US with a visit to our US Botanic Gardens in DC to hear more about a thought-provoking and new style of exhibit for the gardens: Wall Flowers, an exhibit of large scale botanic murals, shared with us by Devin Dotson, exhibit point person and artist Nekisha Durrett.

Thank you as always for listening, your comments and emails, and for your support. Cultivating Place is a deeply grateful - heart-full - community-and-listener-supported endeavor.

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Early morning light at the Denver Botanic Garden in a dry border colorful with Eriogonum, salvia, penstemon, agaves and yuccas.

Great garden companions for both condition and good looks.

California Buckwheat - E. fasciculatum (above) is loaded with constellation-like clusters of white (with pink pollen!) blooms in high to late summer. This is one of the true shrub like buckwheats growing to 4 feet high and a bit wider.

Eriogonum nudum is a surprising beauty of roadside verges and spare grasslands in its native western US ranges. Its name derived from the nude stalks which rise 3 to 4 feet above the small handful of basal leaves to bear these white puffs at the top of each. When flowers are done and the seed heads have been spread by wind and wildlife, the stalks turn the most beautiful wine red in the landscape and will last for floral displays through winter.

Eriogonum crocatum in a Frances Palmer bedside vase with lavender. All of the Eriogonums make long lasting cut flowers (and dry nicely as well), though their stems can be quite brittle so you need to take care.

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