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Plant Highlight: Eriogonum giganteum

August 2004

Eriogonums, or wild buckwheats, are a North American genus in the family Polygonaceae. The buckwheat grown as a crop is Polygonum fagopyrum (syn. Fagopyrum esculentum ), which is in a different genus of the same family; its seeds are ground to make a flour. The wild buckwheats are valued horticulturally both for foliage and flowers. They are mostly native to the western United States, and California alone has at least 100 kinds. The plants are not true herbs, but are weakly woody. In size, they range from tiny clumps only an inch high up to 6-foot bushes. Their flowers are small, but are massed in heads atop the flower-stalks and may be quite showy in aggregate. The usual flower colors are in the white-to-pink range or else yellow. Many species have leaves covered with white wool, which can give them considerable appeal as garden subjects.

Eriogonum giganteum, known as St. Catherine’s Lace, is the largest species of all, and it is native to Santa Barbara Island off the coast of southern California. It is one of the species with wooly white leaves, and it has white flowers in summer which turn a rusty reddish color as they age. Like many of the California wild buckwheats, it thrives in Mediterranean gardens without needing summer irrigation.