Buckwheat: a casualty of American agriculture
I have an emotional attachment to buckwheat—it’s that simple. Growing up in rural Pennsylvania, special-occasion breakfasts were celebrated with buckwheat pancakes topped with buckwheat honey. These dark-colored, robust-flavored pancakes were started the night before with a yeast batter and cooked the next morning on a cast-iron griddle, sizzling hot.
The cakes were served with fresh creamery butter, gently warmed honey, and a glass of ice-cold milk. On good days, the cakes were made to have ears that somewhat resembled Mickey Mouse. These tasted better than the rest—I kid you not—and my siblings and I vied for these special treats.
Sadly, buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum) is a crop that has almost disappeared from American agriculture. Plantings dropped from about 1,000,000 acres in 1918 to about 50,000 acres in 1964. After that, I’m told, acreage records are not available—in other words, there wasn’t enough to bother counting.
Buckwheat is not even remotely related to wheat—it’s not even a grass—but is so named because the seed is ground into flour and used like wheat. It is gluten free and contains high levels of amino acids.
Buckwheat grows fast even in poor soils as long as the soil is well-drained. A newly planted field can yield seed in as little as six weeks. The quantity of seed produced is greatly increased in the presence of pollinators—especially honey bees. And as all beekeepers know, the nectar produces a rich, dark honey with the flavor and consistency of molasses. Of all the varietal honeys, it is reported to be the highest in vitamins and minerals.
The undulating white fields I remember from childhood provide both nectar and pollen to honey bees, and it is said that a colony of bees on a field of buckwheat can store 10-15 pounds of honey per day. Nectar flows from about 8 a.m. till noon and then dries up for the day, so while bees are in obvious attendance in the morning hours they are gone soon after lunch.
I loved buckwheat all over again when I had to take a seed identification course in college. Of all the hundreds of seeds I had to memorize by sight, buckwheat by far was the easiest. It is basically triangular, with the three sides coming together in a point at each end. It is also fairly big, so you can’t miss it. Besides being grown for the seed, buckwheat is also frequently sown as a cover crop. Its quick growth makes it ideal for crowding out the local weeds.
If you have a chance to try some buckwheat, be sure to do it. Besides buckwheat cakes, you can commonly find it made into Japanese noodles (soba) or served as porridge (kasha). And don’t forget to try the honey—that’s the very best part.