Growing Wild Buckwheat from Seed

Native wild buckwheat species in the genus Eriogonum are iconic in the American West. Wild buckwheats have long been grown in gardens for their rugged beauty, drought tolerance, and importance for native pollinator species. Although there are currently around 250 described species of wild buckwheat in the United States, many are rare and endemic and have very restricted ranges, and it is assumed that active speciation is still occurring. Oregon has 45 Eriogonum species and California has 121 Eriogonum species, plus many, many varieties. With so many wild buckwheat species to choose from, you are sure to find one that is right for your garden or native planting project!

Wild buckwheats in the genus Eriogonum come in all shapes, sizes and colors. Seen above are tall woolly buckwheat (Eriogonum elatum) on the left, arrowleaf buckwheat (Eriogonum compositum) on the top right, and barestem buckwheat (Eriogonum nudum) on the bottom right.

The late James L. Reveal was an expert on wild buckwheats. His treatment of the genus Eriogonum in Flora of North America explained how large and complex the genus is. Here is an excerpt from Flora of North America below:


1. Eriogonum Michaux, Fl. Bor.-Amer. 1: 246, plate 24. 1803.

Wild buckwheat [Greek erion, wool, and gony, knee, alluding to the hairy nodes of the species first described, E. tomentosum]

James L. Reveal

“As presently circumscribed, Eriogonum is one of the larger genera in the flora area, being exceeded in numbers of species only by Carex (ca. 480), Astragalus (ca. 350), and Penstemon (ca. 250). As a native North American genus, Eriogonum (ca. 250) is second only to Penstemon. Ecologically, species of Eriogonum occur from the seashore to the highest mountains in the United States. They are among the last plants seen atop the Sierra Nevada and on the “outskirts” of Badwater in Death Valley. About one-third of the species are uncommon to rare in their distribution.”


 

Butterflies and bumble bee nectaring and foraging on sulphur flower buckwheat.

Wild buckwheats are considered by some to be “superplants” because of their ecological importance. The flowers are prized by numerous native pollinators, including native bees, pollinating flies, beetles, butterflies and wasps. Wild buckwheats are used by many species of butterfly as larval host plants. One study in Washington state found that the total butterfly-buckwheat larval host plant association in the state was 44. If a similar study was done in other states, the number of butterfly-buckwheat larval host plant associations would probably be astounding.

Many people will choose to grow wild buckwheats simply to attract pollinators to their yards, gardens or properties.

Maps from CalFlora and OregonFlora depicting the ranges of sulphur flower buckwheat in California and Oregon.

Sulphur flower buckwheat

Our information on growing wild buckwheats from seed will focus on one of the most common Eriogonum species: sulphur flower buckwheat (Eriogonum umbellatum). Although some species of wild buckwheat may have slightly different growing requirements than sulphur flower buckwheat, since it is such a common and widespread species throughout the American West, it is familiar to many people and provides a good example for how to successfully grow wild buckwheat from seed.

Sulphur flower buckwheat grows abundantly in hot, dry, open, and rocky places from low to high elevation throughout the western United States. Due in part to its large distribution, sulphur flower buckwheat is extremely variable, and sometimes hard to identify because the different varieties can look very different from one another. There are 25 varieties of sulphur flower buckwheat in California alone. In the Klamath-Siskiyou there are at least 15 separate varieties that vary in shape and form. The typical specimen has rounded, mounding, and low-growing evergreen foliage with bright yellow flower clusters. Sulphur flower buckwheat is perfect for a sunny, dry location or large rock garden. It is drought tolerant once established.

Growing Sulphur Flower Buckwheat From Seed in Containers

Sulphur Flower Buckwheat Seed Germination Requirements: 60 Days Cold-Moist Stratification

Sulphur flower buckwheat seeds typically need about 60 days of exposure to cold and moist conditions in order to break dormancy and trigger germination. This may vary depending on the source of the seed, the variety of sulphur flower buckwheat, the seed source elevation, and just plain, old seedling variation. In general though, sulphur flower buckwheat needs about 60 days cold-moist stratification.

Natural Cold-Moist Stratification

Natural cold-moist stratification can most easily be achieved by sowing the seed outside in fall to early winter and letting natural exposure to winter conditions — freeze/thaw, rain/snow, etc. — provide the cold-moist stratification, as it naturally occurs in nature. Seeds can be sown in containers or directly sown in the place you would like the plants to grow. On our land, here in the Siskiyou Mountains on the border of Oregon and California, we sow our sulphur flower buckwheat seeds in containers, or directly sow, typically in late November, but no later than late December.

Sowing sulphur flower buckwheat seeds outside in late fall to early winter works best for people that live in areas with cold winter climates; however, for people that live in areas without cold winter climates, or along the coast where freezing temperatures are rare, using artificial cold-moist stratification may be required to achieve germination success for sulphur flower buckwheat.

Pros: There is less up-front work involved in using natural cold-moist stratification methods. Simply sow seed outside in fall to early winter and let nature do the work.

Cons: People who live in warmer winter climates may not be able to achieve the natural cold-moist stratification requirements for sulphur flower buckwheat seeds.

Artificial Cold-Moist Stratification

As the images above depict, there are different ways to achieve cold-moist stratification artificially for sulphur flower buckwheat seeds. One of the methods is the “sandwich method,” where seed is placed on layered moist (not wet) paper towels, folded over and then slipped into a ziplock bag. The bag is then placed in the refrigerator for 60 days prior to sowing the seeds. It is best to check the seeds often for early germination. If you see that the seeds are starting to sprout, it is time to plant the germinates (aka sprouting seeds).

Another method is to place the seeds in layered cheesecloth, tied off a the top, and placed in moist peat moss in a breathable (at least not air-tight) container. The container is then placed in the refrigerator for 60 days prior to sowing the seeds. It is best to check the seeds often for early germination. If you see that the seeds are starting to sprout, it is time to plant the germinates.

Some people may prefer to germinate seeds using artificial cold-moist stratification techniques, prior to sowing the seeds, even if they do live in a cold winter environment, as it can ensure that each container will have a viable plant, without the risk of germination failure, wasting less soil and creating a more uniform planting.

Pros: Using artificial cold-moist stratification can result in a higher seedling establishment rate, with less soil wasted on “blanks,” or seed that doesn’t germinate.

Cons: It is more work up front to germinate seeds ahead of seed sowing.

Types of Containers for Starting Sulphur Flower Buckwheat from Seed

Tip: Sulphur flower buckwheat prefers well drained soil. A little extra perlite in typical potting soil mixture will help your soil drain better and keep your plants healthier.

native seed tray
Seed tray

Seed Trays

There are many types of seed starting trays, with varying size cells and soil capacities. Starting seeds in seed trays is probably the most familiar method of native seed propagation. In this method either a single seed or several seeds are sown into individual cells within the seed tray. If several seedlings emerge within a single cell they can all be retained for a fuller plug, or they can be cut and/or thinned to a single seedling. Placing more than one seed per cell ensures at least one seed germinates in each cell.

Seeds should be lightly covered with sieved potting soil, perlite, vermiculite or nursery grit.

Transplanting is normally done when two to three true leaves have developed. 

Pros: Each plug can be easily removed individually and transplanted into a larger container. Damage to roots is unlikely during transplanting if done with care.

Cons: Using a typical seed tray that is 2.5″-3″ deep requires that the seedlings be upsized soon after they are ready in order to prevent transplant shock, and/or root deformation. If you are the type of person who can get behind on transplanting, it’s better to use a deeper seed tray, like 5″ deep or more, to give yourself more time before upsizing needs to occur.

pots for native seed
Tray of 4″ pots for seeding

Small Pots

Much like a many-celled seed tray, placing many small pots into a tray and sowing seeds in them can also be a good way to grow individual wild buckwheat plants without crowding. Any size small container can be used for this method. Do you have a lot of 4″ pots around from purchasing plants from nurseries or from veggie starts? Put them to use growing wild buckwheat!

Sow a few seeds per individual small container. The seed should be lightly covered with sieved potting soil, perlite, vermiculite or nursery grit.

Pros: Small plants can be grown directly into a container that can then be transplanted directly into the ground or upsized into a larger container. Root damage and transplant shock are minimized.

Cons: More soil is needed upfront to germinate seeds in individual small containers. This method takes up more space for germinating seeds than seed trays.

Sowing Many Seeds in Single Containers

This method uses a single container to grow many seedlings for transplanting. Any small to medium sized container will work. Seed is sprinkled onto the surface of the soil medium with the expectation that many seedlings will emerge within the single container. The seed should be lightly covered with sieved potting soil, perlite, vermiculite or nursery grit. (Example: Use one KSNS packet of sulphur flower buckwheat seed per 1 gallon pot.)

Transplanting is normally done when two to three true leaves have developed after seed germination. Transplanting involves “pricking out” the seedlings after loosening the soil medium around them. This method works well for wild buckwheat species because they have fibrous root systems that are easy to transplant.

Pros: Sowing many seeds into single containers and “pricking out” transplants saves space in the nursery and is less work up front. Many plants can be grown from seed originally sown into only a single container.

Cons: If seed is sown too thickly, dense seedlings can be susceptible to “damping off” and other diseases. Transplanting and “pricking out” can be laborious and time intensive.

seed tray ready for seed
Seed flat

Seed Flats

Utilizing seed flats is similar to sowing seeds into individual containers, however, flats are generally larger and more shallow. Seed is sprinkled onto the surface of the soil medium with the expectation that many seedlings will emerge within the seed flat. The seed should be lightly covered with sieved potting soil, perlite, vermiculite or nursery grit.

Transplanting is normally done when two to three true leaves have developed. Transplanting involves “pricking out” the seedlings after loosening the soil medium around them in the seed flat. This method works well for species like sulphur flower buckwheat.

Pros: Sowing many seeds into seed flats and “pricking out” transplants saves space in the nursery and is less work up front. Many plants can be grown from seed originally sown into a single seed flat.

Cons: If seed is sown too thickly dense seedlings can be susceptible to “damping off” and other diseases. Transplanting and “pricking out” can be laborious and time intensive.

Lupinus albicaulis seed tray
Pony packs used for native seeding

Pony Packs

People that buy vegetable starts in the spring end up with a lot of extra pony packs that can then be reused to grow native plants, including sulphur flower buckwheat.

In this method either a single seed or several seeds are sown into individual cells within the pony pack. If several seedlings emerge within a single cell they can all be retained for a fuller plug, or they can be cut and/or thinned to a single seedling. Placing more than one seed per cell ensures at least one seed germinates in each cell.

Seeds should be lightly covered with sieved potting soil, perlite, vermiculite or nursery grit.

Transplanting is normally done when two to three true leaves have developed. 

Pros: Each plug from a pony pack can be easily removed individually and transplanted into a larger container. Damage to roots is unlikely during transplanting if done with care.

Cons: Pony packs are shallow and require that seedlings be upsized soon after they are ready in order to prevent root damage and/or deformation.

Tubes

Tubes

Most home nurseries don’t have tubes on hand, however, if you find yourself with tubes you’ve bought from other nurseries, or were given tubes by someone to reuse, they are a great way to grow sulphur flower buckwheat. Many commercial and agency nurseries use tubes for growing wild buckwheats because they can get a deep root system while using less space in the nursery.

In this method either a single seed or several seeds are sown into individual tubes. If several seedlings emerge within a single tube they can all be retained for a fuller tube, or they can be cut and/or thinned to a single seedling. Placing more than one seed per tube ensures at least one seed germinates in each tube.

Seeds should be lightly covered with sieved potting soil, perlite, vermiculite or nursery grit.

Pros: Great for deeper root growth of wild buckwheat seedlings. Individual plants can be grown in each tube, which can then be easily planted in the ground or transplanted into a larger container when ready. Damage to roots is unlikely during transplanting if done with care.

Cons: Tubes require special trays to hold them, which can take up a lot of space in the nursery. Tubes and their trays can be expensive to purchase brand new. Tube trays are difficult to recycle and create a lot more plastic in the nursery.

Arrowleaf buckwheat (Eriogonum compositum) grown from seed in ellepots.

Ellepots and Jiffypots

Ellepots and Jiffypots are examples of premade miniplugs or small-volume, mostly biodegradable containers that you can purchase for starting seeds. Products like these have fully or mostly biodegradable wrappers and the entire plug can be transplanted, eliminating transplant shock and preserving healthy root structure. Take note that not all products like these are eco-friendly. Jiffy pellets (a type of Jiffy pot) have nylon mesh that is “photodegradable,” (will degrade when exposed to sunlight) that can break down in several years, but it is still a plastic product.

In this method either a single seed or several seeds are sown into Ellepots or Jiffypots. If several seedlings emerge within a single pot they can all be retained for a fuller plug, or they can be cut and/or thinned to a single seedling. Placing more than one seed per ellepot/jiffypot ensures at least one seed germinates in each pot.

Seeds should be lightly covered with sieved potting soil, perlite, vermiculite or nursery grit.

Pros: Ellepots and Jiffypots come premade and are easy to work with. After roots fill out the pots the entire pot can be transplanted without transplant shock.

Cons: Special trays may be required to hold Ellepots or Jiffypots, and the product is expensive and needs to be shipped to you unless you can purchase them at a local nursery supply store. This method isn’t for everyone and a small trial run should be made before investing heavily in Ellepots or Jiffypots for growing wild buckwheat from seed. Also, make sure the soil mix is right for the species you will be growing. Jiffy pellets are primarily composed of peat moss, which may be too acidic for growing wild buckwheats.

Direct Sowing Sulphur Flower Buckwheat Seeds

Wild buckwheats, including sulphur flower buckwheat, and other wildflowers, grown from directly sown seed in a KSNS native seeding project.

Sulphur flower buckwheat seeds can be sown via direct sowing. Direct sowing is the process of sowing seeds directly at the site where you wish to grow the plants.

The photo at the left shows various wild buckwheat species grown from directly sown seeds in a KSNS native seeding project, including sulphur flower buckwheat. You can see the darker, sulphur-yellow-colored flowers of suphur flower buckwheat near the center of the photo. This photo was taken three summers after seed sowing.

Klamath-Siskiyou Native Seeds has also worked on a large native seeding and planting project at Troon Vineyard in the Applegate Valley in southwest Oregon that will eventually be a demonstration garden, complete with paths, plant signs and interpretive signs. Out of the nearly 100 species included in the project, the majority of species were established through direct seed sowing, including a patch of sulphur flower buckwheat that has established very well via direct sowing this first year of growth. Next summer we will have more photos and documentation of this successful project!

In order to successfully grow sulphur flower buckwheat through direct sowing of seed, you must first prepare the site, or choose a site with minimal competition from existing vegetation. If sowing seed in a small area, place seed in a small container, or empty the contents of a seed packet into the palm of your hand, and scatter the seed by hand onto the soil surface. Sow a little seed in one direction and then switch directions and sow seed in the opposite direction in order to get better coverage. Only scatter a little seed at a time. After sowing the seed use a rake or your hand to lightly rake the seed into the soil, just so the seed is barely covered by soil. Contact with soil is important for seed germination. It helps the seed stay moist and limits predation by birds and small mammals. Burying seed too deeply in the soil will prevent seed germination. Only a light layer of soil, sifted potting soil or grit is needed to cover the seeds. After sowing, water the seeds into the soil using a watering can or watering hose with a water breaker. It is always nice to time your direct seed sowing for just before predicted rain so you can let a natural rain show water the seeds in.

*Fun Fact* — The spelling of the word sulphur with a ‘ph’ rather than an ‘f’, as in sulfur, is simply the distinction between Oxford English spelling and American English. For more information you can read about the switch from using the spelling sulphur to sulfur in this Nature Chemistry article. The historic spelling of the common name, sulphur flower buckwheat, will probably remain and is an interesting example of how language and spelling evolves over time.

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