Tag Archives: California native plants

Why I Love Buckwheats

I know they are kind of, well, quirky looking, but I just love buckwheats.  Both of the species I put in my Dad’s garden bloomed for three months from late summer into fall.  The Naked Buckwheat (Eriogonum nudum) displays it’s white pom-poms at the top of 2′ tall stalks, a minimalist display with a Dr. Suessian edge.  The airy quality of California Buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum foliosum), with its hundreds of 1″ white blooms, reminds me of baby’s breath on steroids.

California Buckwheat showing off its prolific flowering.

I realize that they aren’t to everyone’s taste; buckwheats tend to be a little disheveled looking.   Native right here in Chico – drive through Upper Bidwell Park to see them in the wild – they haven’t been refined by years of breeding to exacting standards of tidiness.  They give a garden a free-wheeling character.

Their beauty goes beyond their appearance.  Both of these buckwheats are extremely drought tolerant, able to survive our long, hot, dry summers without supplemental water once they are established.  And, they are both magnets to beneficial insects.  I’ve counted five different kinds of native and honey bees at a time on a single plant.  Tiny predatory wasps, the kind that protect gardens from harmful organisms, love the flowers, too.  Watching the miniature wildlife flourishing on the buckwheats just plain makes me happy.

Then, consider that these guys are virtually maintenance free.  If you want, you can trim down the flower stalks after the blooms are spent in the late fall to tidy up your garden. Time required?  A few minutes per plant.

Use the California Buckwheat as a 3′ height background for smaller perennials or evergreen groundcovers.  It’s fine texture will also contrast nicely with course-textured taller plants such as Eve Case Coffeeberry or McMinn Manzanita.

The Naked Buckwheat’s verticality looks good in drifts behind shorter plants such as California Fuchsia and Bearberry Manzanita.

If you judge the garden-worthiness of plants by more than whether they fit a traditional definition of beauty, you may find yourself loving buckwheats, too.

How’s It Growing?

Now that my Dad’s garden has been in the ground for 10 months, it’s time to take a look at how things are growing. 

We installed the plants in late August last year.  I would have preferred to wait another month or two, but, well, the temptation to make use of my burly brother for digging while he was visiting was just too great.  Most of the plants survived the end of summer heat waves and then spent the fall and winter establishing themselves.  Our long, wet spring delayed the burst of growth a bit, but when it hit, it was exciting. 

Colorful native perennials and annuals line the front walk

By early May, the grasses and perennials were growing with gusto and radiant with color.  We enjoyed watching native bees, butterflies, and honey bees buzz the poppies, penstemon, and mint bush.

The native bunch grass, California Fescue, being a cool season grass, began filling in when the rains started last fall.  In April, it lent the garden nice movement when it sent up its 4′ tall flower spikes. 

California Fescue, a native bunch grass, adds movement to the garden with it's 4' tall flower stalks.

The deer grass, a warm season grass, waited until late spring to start growing.  When it’s full sized, it will anchor the front of the garden which right now looks kind of sparse.

The shrubs will fill in over the next couple of years.  They are planted to create a dense backdrop behind the perennials and grasses and provide from the neighbor’s garage.  Coffeeberry, currants, dwarf manzanita, and mock orange are all sending out lots of new grow. 

Just starting or getting ready to bloom now, in July, are two species of buckwheat and some narrow-leafed milkweed.  With the ample moisture this spring, the buckwheats exceeded my expectations for height.  In fact, the Naked Buckwheat’s flower stalks grew so tall and succulent that they flopped over in a wind storm and then continued growing up from the ground like cobra heads.  Weird.  I trimmed them back and the new stalks are straighter, sturdier and just about ready to flower at a more typical 2-3′ height.

Urging Restraint

Winter is finally releasing its strangle-hold on the landscape, buds are bursting, the hillsides are glowing chartreuse, and I really feel like digging holes in my garden.  Which is fine, if I want to plant things that like to be watered.  Fruits, veggies, ‘normal’ landscape plants, stream-bank

Coffee berry is a Butte County native that can tolerate some summer water

plants, shade lovers . . . these guys all enjoy being released from the confines of their containers into real dirt when spring is springing.  I’ll water them during planting and keep doing so as they need it through spring, summer, and fall until the rains begin.


But . . . and I hate to say this because I don’t want to convey anything but complete enthusiasm for native gardening . . .  I’m trying not to plant super drought tolerant California native plants now. Excellent dryland plants such as Ceanothus, White Manzanita, Foothill Penstemon, and Canyon Live Oak deserve to be in the garden, but will reward you with their best vitality if you wait until fall to plant them.

Here’s why.  The natives that grow on hot, dry sites have evolved to thrive in our summers without supplemental water.  To do this, they require well developed root systems.  Their root systems do not like to be watered in the summers; the most drought tolerant species are actually prone to dying if they receive summer water.  So, the best way to ensure their health is to water them well at planting and then leave them alone.  No water, no fertilizer.

If I try to plant super drought tolerant natives now, with summer just around the corner, chances are much lower that they will be able to grow enough roots to allow them to survive unwatered until the rains come.  If I just can’t help myself and irrigate them, they might survive.

Foothill penstemon will do best without summer water

Or,  the combination of water and warm soil may cause them to develop  fungal root disease.


I’d prefer to wait until fall to plant these beauties.  If I get them in the ground in October or November, before the rains start in earnest, they will have all winter and spring to grow those essential roots.  By next summer, they’ll be ready for drought.  If it’s a dry spring, I’ll water them before the weather starts heating up to help them establish  and ‘charge’ the soil.  But, once it gets hot, I’ll turn the water off .  And the success rate will be much higher than it would have been if I’d given in to the temptation to plant right now, in this beautiful spring weather.  The beauty and satisfaction of using the most appropriate plants for our environment is worth waiting for the right planting time.

Plants should be the last thing to go into a landscape, whether they are our wonderful drought tolerant natives or not.  Next post, I’ll share ideas on sequencing the installation of a new landscape.