Melanie Cross and Jean Struthers take a break from splitting a nursery of tiny seedlings into a kinder garden of individual pots to peer at a gawky buckwheat plant. "Hairy knees!" they chortle together. Welcome to botanical humor.
Rosy buckwheat, or Eriogonum grande rubescens, is one of the showiest of the 250 species of this native Californian, which can be found growing from the Channel Islands to among rugged inland chaparral. Eriogonum or literally "woolly knees," comes from the Greek for the first species named, referencing the hairy nodes of the stems.
Check out the "Jepson Herbarium," an exhaustive guide of California's flora from the University of California, Berkeley, and further prepare for a vocabulary quiz show: The buckwheat stems are also known as the peduncle. The main stalk carries the inflorescence, or flower cluster. And then, the perianth, or flower, is generally white to red or yellow.
The nonedible flowering buckwheat grows 1- to 2-feet tall in mounded clumps that can spread 2 to 3 feet across a good anchor plant. The leaves are evergreen and are spoon-shaped or oval. What looks like a broad pink flower is actually a cluster of tiny flowers, or in botany speak, the inflorescence is an umbel of one to two spheres of densely clustered flowers. The pollinator attracts butterflies, bees and birds and deer.
When it comes to planting rosy buckwheat, Cross and Struthers chime in together again: "Dig a hole, water the hole and drop in the plant." They suggest slightly mounding a 1-gallon plant so the crown is an inch above ground, which ensures good drainage. The duo recommends planting the flower between November and February and watering lightly in the winter and not at all in the summer. The plant has evolved to grow during the wetter winter months and stay dry in the heat. But, they also say, summer moisture will breed fungus and hold bacteria that may kill the plant.
Jean Struthers should know she founded the Nursery for the Santa Clara Chapter of the California Native Plant Society in 1996, building out the space with a hefty donation from local philanthropist David Packard. Located in Los Altos Hills on the Hidden Villa property, the society's 20-foot greenhouse (built mostly by Struthers' husband) protects the hundreds of seedlings being readied for the monthly member sale. A biannual sale for nonmembers takes place in fall and spring, and in winter the space is open for visitors to help with work on Wednesdays and Thursdays from noon to 3 p.m.
Melanie Cross, now the nursery's director after Struthers retired, says the rosy buckwheat will thank you by staying in bloom from June until late summer. While the brightly colored flowers redden and brown, gardeners often let them dry up on the stems to use for arrangements and to provide seed for foraging birds. And look for the bees, because, well, they think the woolly knees are also the bees' knees.
This article appeared in print in the Winter Home + Garden Design 2016 publication.