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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.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Fagopyrum esculentum. Photo by Kurt Stueber, Wikimedia Commons.
Common buckwheat seeds. Photo by Steve Hurst, USDA-NRCS Plants Database.

Comments

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Ron
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Is there a location I can purchase buckwheat honey in 45 gal. drums?

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Rusty
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Sorry, but Honey Bee Suite is a non-commercial site with no advertisements or endorsements . . . and I plan to keep it that way. Thanks for the offer but I am not interested.

Bruce
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Rusty,
Have you read about the “year without a summer”? 1816, when because of a volcanic eruption the year before crops failed and the only thing that saved a world catastrophe (our society) was that farmers had a supply of buckwheat seeds and were able to bring in a crop in 60+ days and feed the livestock and themselves.

Nate
Reply

The native buckwheat here in Southern California makes excellent honey (my favorite). It’s rich and dark and it even stands up to my coffee!

Rusty
Reply

You’re making me jealous!

Gabrielle
Reply

Just put some in the garden last week! The turf fields around here often use buckwheat as a cover crop/green manure, as does the farm where I am keeping a hive –lucky bees!

chris
Reply

Interesting on “the year with no summer” makes me want to grow it even more. I just read that the buckwheat name comes from a Dutch word for beech wheat, sounds like buckwheat. It’s due to the seeds being similar to beech nuts. Just pointing something interesting out. Thanks.

Rusty
Reply

Chris,

The seeds do have a unique shape.

John
Reply

I have a small backyard apiary with two hives of honeybees. I am in the process of planting native wildflowers and white clover that will give me a longer bloom period. It would be nice to have the influence of the buckwheat in my wildflower honey… Can buckwheat be “container grown” so as not to have it overtake my other plantings, or my neighbors yard(s)?

Rusty
Reply

John,

I honestly don’t know, but you would need one incredibly large container to influence the taste of your wildflower honey. Estimates are that two million blossoms are required for one pound of honey, so the math doesn’t really support it.

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