Have you eaten buckwheat? The Japanese sing songs about it, it is a Hindu holy food, Hans Christian Andersen wrote a story about it and at one time it was identified as an American breakfast staple. Yet few people in the United States today know what buckwheat tastes like, much less what it looks like. That’s a shame because this plant is easy to grow and can provide some fine eating.
Buckwheat, Polygonaceae Fagopyrum sp., is an annual plant, one of the few grain crops that do not belong to the grass family. It is related to rhubarb and knotweed. It is native to central China but was widely grown throughout cooler areas of the old world. Early settlers brought the seed to America, where it grew well in the northern states.
Buckwheat has rather spindly stems but may grow to 2’ tall. The leaves are heart shaped or arrow shaped, and the flower clusters rise up out of the junction of leaf and stem. The flowers are rather pretty- small fluffy white clusters somewhat resembling Alyssum. Bees and butterflies love them. The honey made from Buckwheat flowers has a distinctive dark color and pleasant taste that make it highly prized. Buckwheat keeps flowering and producing seeds until frost kills it.
Buckwheat seeds are hard, brown and triangular in shape. They will ripen at various times and several harvests may be needed. The hard shell is ground off before preparing the seed to eat.
Planting and harvesting buckwheat
Buckwheat would be an ideal small “grain” for home gardeners to grow. It’s easy to grow and hardy and a small area can produce a lot of grain. It could become a specialty crop for those looking for an organic “niche” market.
Plant buckwheat seed in late spring, about the time of the last frost in your area. You want it to emerge after the last frost as it is frost tender. Plant in full sun. Buck wheat isn’t fussy about soil, it will grow even in poor soil. It’s suggested to plant about a peck and a half of seed per half acre. Sown thickly weeds will not be a problem and the crop rarely requires fertilizer.
Buckwheat can be harvested several times in late summer by stripping ripe, hard seeds off by hand into a pouch or basket. Or when a lot of the crop seems to have ripe seed whole plants can be pulled and let in the sun for a few days and many of the green seeds will ripen. The seeds can then be stripped off the plant.
Uses of buckwheat
In earlier days buckwheat cakes were a common breakfast staple for Americans, as well as many Northern Europeans. Over a million acres of Buckwheat were grown in the late 1800’s in the United States. Now only a few thousand acres are grown, primarily for specialty flours and birdseed mixes. Canada grows a bit more, primarily for export to Japan. American farmers find the crop hard to harvest with machinery since it does not ripen all at once like other grains, and the stems may collapse from storms.
The Japanese call buckwheat ‘Soba’ and make a variety of noodles and other popular dishes from it. The USDA has found that buckwheat is nutritionally superior to all other grains because of its amino acid composition and lysine content. Buckwheat seeds can be ground in a coffee grinder or powerful food processor to make flour. The flour is gluten free.
Buckwheat makes an excellent fodder crop for livestock and is grown on soils with low fertility to improve them. It can be used by gardeners as a smother crop or as a green manure. Buckwheat hulls are used in pillows and are said to improve sleep. They are also used as mulch.
Buckwheat is used to make beer in some places and buckwheat flowers will make a good brown dye.
In herbal medicine buckwheat is used to lower blood sugar and modern medicine confirms it does have some effect on lowering blood sugar. It can be taken in a tea or in capsules or as a food product. Dosage recommendation is 70-100 grams of buckwheat flour daily. It is also used to help with varicose veins. In herbal medicine buckwheat is also used to help treat eye ailments/vision problems. Buckwheat is also helpful in curing chronic diarrhea.
Buckwheat tea can be made from roasted seeds or from flowers and green parts that are dried. Put one tablespoon of roasted seed in 1 ½ cups water and bring to a boil. Then let steep 10 minutes and drain. Or use 2 tablespoons of dried flowers/leaves to a cup of boiling water and steep 10 minutes. You can buy buckwheat tea products in some stores.
Cautions: some people are allergic to buckwheat, particularly if they also have an allergy to rice. It can cause sun sensitivity and sunburn when consumed in large quantity. If you take medicine to lower blood sugar you should inform your doctor if you are using buckwheat medicinally, and not just as an occasional food product. Buckwheat can cause constipation in some people.
Buckwheat may have fallen out of favor with American cooks because the flour is a gray color and doesn’t store as well as other flours. In American supermarkets buckwheat flour is usually sold as a pancake mix, mixed with wheat or other flours. Why not look for some and try some buckwheat pancakes?