Eriogonum fasciculatum.

At best, California buckwheat looks like a compost pile with cotton balls stuck to it.  It achieves this during Spring and part of Summer.

Its roots hold the desert together.  Its flowers are gnat-sized and grow in round clusters, their stamens like bristles.  The cell walls of the flowers are kept ridgid with pressurized winter rain; the flowers themselves are a concentration of minerals leached from char and decomposed granite.



California buckwheat is one of the species that makes western chaparral country fire-compatible. Others include chamise--also known as greasewood--and redshank, fond of shedding ribbons of dry bark. "Fire-compatible" means "comes back quickly and more or less the same after being converted to convection column." 

A thing to understand when surveying apparently-starving chaparral thicket is that most of the biomass is underground. Buckwheat produces a fine, shallow net of roots; mesquite, meanwhile, drives a taproot a hundred-eighty feet down, catching water as it slides over bedrock months after the last rain.

Perpetual imbalance is part of what makes desert ecosystems fragile.  Fire turns the scrubland to water vapor, carbon dioxide, and freed minerals and organic polymers. The solids leach downward, feeding regeneration.  New growth pulled from char or root reserve feeds an explosion of cottontails, or locusts, or butterflies, or squirrels; soon after that, it's their remains lingering in the dirt, often as owl pellets. Organic matter in the desert tends to accumulate rather than break down. Buckwheat most feeds the ecosystem by burning.  The image of widespread exposed bones is not an exaggeration, and even the plants are ghostlike.



There's a good deal of pollen on a buckwheat in Spring.

It's the pollen that gets California buckwheat classified as a eudicot. Each granule has three creases, or colpi, along the center axis--a feature evolved during the cretaceous.  Pollen from most other plants--monocots and other dicots both--has one colpus.

The monocot/dicot/eudicot distinction is a useful starting point for understanding the lines along which plant structures evolve.  It will tell you, for example, that bermuda grass and banana trees follow the same model. 

The bees are too practical to care; all they have to do is land and walk, almost.  Buckwheat is why it's wise to listen for a buzz before stumbling towards an overhang in the Sonoran.



Once pollenated, the flowers take months to seed and fall away. As with many perennials, California buckwheat seeds need to cold-stratify in order to be viable.  This means staying at or near freezing for a month (give or take).  You can sprout California buckwheat seeds the same way you sprout apple seeds: with a refrigerator, a jar, and a wet paper towel.

After pollination, the cream and pink flowers turn rust-colored.  The seed clusters deteriorate from the bottom as coastal air spills over the mountains and condenses.  Winter rain, an explosion like everything else in the desert, washes seeds into the creases between granite boulders and soil, into tiny earthen cups in the hillsides, into expanding arroyos.  In Spring the new roots chase water laterally, between particles of stone and char. 



See also: Fire ecology.


Las Pilitas Nursery.  "California Buckwheat."

Tree of Life Nursery.  "Eriogonum (Buckwheat)."

Calflora.  "Eriogonum Fasciculatum."

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