There are a multitude of forms of E. umbellatum. There are many mid-size mounding versions, and even some small diminutive forms. Almost all of them are perfect for Sierra Foothill gardens. They can survive with very little water through the summer, but can handle weekly (possibly more) water in the garden setting. Flowers are usually yellow, but they often fade to red or rusty hues, providing a long season of color.
Periodically I indulge in a cruel daydream. I imagine that for some reason I am forced into a situation where I must chose my 5 favorite plants and grow only those 5 plants. Perhaps I am an unwilling victim on a new reality TV show: “Meet your new plants” or “Rock Garden Survivor”. Whatever the reason, there I am, forced to chose only 5 plants in which to populate my garden. Desperate for slack, I plead with my tormentors, “Can it possibly be 5 genera?” In the most recent incarnation of this daydream, I have a fit of cleverness and trick my persecutor into defining “plant” as meaning a particular genus and species. I chortle with delight on winning this victory, knowing that one of those “plants” will be Eriogonum umbellatum, and knowing that due to the incredible varietability of this plant, my garden will be populated with an diverse range of buckwheats of all sizes, colors and textures.
The Eriogonums, or buckwheats, are primarily a plant of the American West. They grow throughout all the western mountains and deserts. My initial interest in them stemmed from a fascination with a very dwarf species, Eriogonum caespitosum. As I grew more of the Eriogonum, however, the fascination turned into a deep love affair. There are many plants that look stunningly beautiful when seen in habitat. Some of these plants are growable, some are not. The Eriogonum as a genus, are not only growable, they are some of the best performing plants for Sierra Foothill dryland and rock gardens.
The species you are most likely to encounter in the nursery trade is the Sulfur Buckwheat, or Eriogonum umbellatum. In its typical nursery form, it is a rather loose mound of grey-green leaves about 12 inches high. Erect stems carry “pom poms” of bright yellow in late spring some 6-8 inches above the mound. If you have grown this plant, congratulations. But if you think you know E. umbellatum just because you have grown this plant, think again. There are at least 40 recognized varieties of E. umbellatum ranging through the western North American continent. The Jepson manual recognizes 17 varieties in California alone. The variety most commonly found in cultivation is E. umbellatum aureum, which does not occur in California. Don’t fret, though. California has some great Buckwheats.
On of my favorite buckwheats for general landscape use is E. umbellatum modocense. It is most likely to be encountered in the nursery trade as cultivar “Alturas Red”. This super plant forms a loose mound up to 2 feet across and 1 foot tall of round felted grey leaves. The plant blooms in spring, with erect stems and umbels of a soft yellow. As the flowers age, they begin to darken and change color (a typical characteristic of buckwheats) until the plant is covered with umbels of a deep rusty red. This effect is quite fetching, and visitors to our garden often comment upon it and inquire as to its identity.
E. umbellatum minus is so different from the above that you would never guess them to be the same species. Instead of growing in a mound, it forms a dense mat of small silvery leaves only inches high. The flowering stems are not erect, but rather cascade about the plant on prostrate stems. The buds are a striking deep maroon. They open briefly to a very pale yellow, but then fade almost immediately to a deep burgundy red. The effect of these dark maroon poms against the silver mat is quite lovely. This plant, one of my favorite, is from alpine communities in the San Gabriel and San Bernadino mountain ranges, where it grows on gravelly slopes.
In our own Sonora Pass can be found a particularly lovely form of E. umbellatum nevadense. In the higher elevations, this plant forms a loose mat of small dark green leaves that are white underneath. The flowers are a bright clear yellow and range through some nice gold, orange and rusty red shades as they dry. In the southern parts of the Sierras, this plant intergrades with a very nice mat forming variety known as E. umbellatum covillei.
All Sulfur Buckwheats enjoy sunny areas in well-drained soil, and make themselves very much at home in the sunny dry rock garden. We mulch all of ours with pea gravel to further improve drainage about the plant’s crown, and to facilitate self-sowing of seedlings. Some of our plants are watered once a week, while others are in areas that get watered as infrequently as once or twice a summer. They have proven both deer and gopher resistant fo us and many other gardeners. An additional benefit to growing Eriogonums in the garden is that you will attract many native insect pollinators such as miniature bees and wasps. These wonderful plants can be rather difficult to locate in the nursery trade, and you must consult with mail order nurseries if you want to procure a selection of them.
- Full sun
- Low water
- Very low water