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Our long-flowering native

Special to The Times

LAST summer, a chef friend stood admiring the edge of my herb garden, joking that the blaze of color from the red-flowering buckwheat planted along the border was far too pretty to harvest for pancake flour.

In truth, I had no intention of grinding up the blossoms. It seemed incredible that even the most avid Russian blini maker ever had the patience to mill and sift the tiny flowers, which truth be told are not really red, but an intense dirty pink. Crush the flowers in your fingers and the seeds are so small, you can barely see them. You’d need an acre to produce a canape.

It took native plants man Bart O’Brien to set me straight -- once he had stopped laughing -- that cooking buckwheat comes from another genus of plants, Asian in origin, called Fagopyrum. Our native American western buckwheats come from the genus Eriogonum, pronounced “air-ee-og-oh-num,” and my floating and delicate red-flowering buckwheat is a species with the oddly aristocratic name E. grande rubescens.

So much for culinary references. Yet I couldn’t rip this California native from my herb garden. No plant looks better planted in the foreground of dill and fennel, which also have spiring flowers. Moreover, long after dill is done and fennel quits in late summer, showing the limits of some immigrant plants in their adopted land, the native buckwheat is still flowering.

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The blooms start in midsummer, and by late February the splodge of strangely lustrous pink, visible through the watery gray light of a winter rain, will be that last cluster of buckwheat flowers, held stubbornly aloft on delicate and kookily architectural stems.

Singling out buckwheat as a Californian representative in this section otherwise devoted to competitors from other countries with similar climates is probably odd. Red-flowering buckwheat is an unlikely Miss California for every possible reason, starting with the fact that few plants are uglier as seedlings. Volunteer seedlings or specimens in 1-gallon pots from nurseries start out looking straggly and sad, like droopy cabbages that have bolted.

The plant caught the interest of Central Coast nurseryman David Fross, who began propagating it for his Native Sons nursery in Arroyo Grande, and found it to be an acquired taste sought after by landscapers and botanic gardens.

He tried to breed plants with the darkest flowers, but he found the plant’s “most endearing habit” was the way it bred on its own.

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Buckwheat likes sun but can take some shade. Fross recommends it for dry meadows, perennial borders, containers, banks and rock gardens. Give it a year, and the gawky seedling will have grown into a neat mound, about 18 inches across and a foot high.

Even out of flower, it makes a first-class ground cover. The leaves are a deep green with a slight aspect of a silvery wash and felted white undersides. You get all the color hit of ivy without the invasive problem or snails.

Come mid-to-late summer, just as the spring flowering plants are punking out, the sturdiness of a good green background plant gives way to a far dreamier impression as scaffold-like flower stems start rising. The stems alone are something to behold, with a cantilevered quality as if drawn by a ruler. They give the plants a funny, graceful and oddly human aspect, less like a stem out of nature and more like a Buckminster Fuller design for a stem.

Be warned. One buckwheat is never enough. As it begins to flower, casting a pink cloud over the deep green base of foliage, you’ll want a field of them, a wheat plant or not.

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Then the final surprise is that this is indeed a food plant -- just not for humans. It’s of infinite importance to native bees and butterflies. Above all, buckwheat may be the refuge and rescuer for our pollinators. For half the year, from late summer to the darkest days of winter, these stubborn pink flowers provide forage for creatures when the rest of the garden prima donnas are waiting for the optimum moments of spring.

Buckwheat’s native ranges are the Channel Islands, whose mixture of intense heat and fog equip it perfectly to survive mainland garden conditions of intense heat and irrigation. But don’t over-water the plants. They don’t need it. They’re real Californians.

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home@latimes.com

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