Plant of the Week
Parsnipflower Buckwheat (Eriogonum heracleoides var. heracleoides)
By Charmaine Delmatier (2013)
Rising above the usual green herbaceous forbs in open rocky areas or competing for space amidst the shrubs of a sagebrush steppe or coniferous forest, is an umbel-like buckwheat made of several delicate clusters of cream-colored flowers often tinged with yellow or rose. A member of Polygonaceae, the buckwheat or knotweed family, parsnipflower buckwheat (Eriogonum heracleoides var. heracleoides) is easily distinguished from other buckwheats with a whorl of 3 to 10 linear leaf-like bracts midway up the flowering stem, and then again often directly underneath the inflorescence. At the terminal end of the erect stem is one bell-shaped involucre, often tomentose with 6 to 12 reflexed teeth. Rising from the involucre is a cluster of simple to compound umbellate flowers, each supported on a single stalk, the pedicel. The flowers are glabrous and smaller; no longer than 4 to 9 millimeters, and form a cup-like perianth (petals and sepals collectively). Extending beyond the perianth are stamens with long soft hairs attached to the filament. While the flowering stems are erect, between 4 to 15 inches; the base is a prostrate mat of loose leafy rosettes composed of tomentose linear to lanceolate leaves.
With all these field characteristics, parsnipflower buckwheat proves to be a showy perennial in the western United States including California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Utah, Nevada, Wyoming, and Colorado. To our delight, it has a longer blooming period and can start as early as May and continue into mid-summer. It is usually found at 7,000 feet or lower, and when in full flower, creates a blanket of solid wildflowers.
Worldwide, the buckwheat family has 1200 species of trees, shrubs, herbs, and vines. Eriogonum constitutes about 125 of those species. Parsnip buckwheat is an important browse food and is grazed by several game animals including deer, elk, and sheep. In Wyoming, bison will also forage on the flowers. The flowers attract butterflies, bees, and insects and the dried seeds provide an abundant source of food for birds and smaller rodents. The larger shrubbier plants provide important shelter for lizards.
An appreciation for wild buckwheats spurred the formation of the Eriogonum Society. Targeted research projects include cultivation in gardens, evaluating buckwheats in the wild, developing and sharing crucial information such as propagation and distribution of Eriogonums, and helping to protect its rare species. Besides the large amount of needed scientific research being generated by the Eriogonum Society, its medicinal values have been studied elsewhere by several botanists, taxonomists, and ethno-botanists including N. J. Turner, Daniel E. Moerman, V. F. Ray, and J. Reveal.
There are numerous documented medicinal uses by Native Americans. Stems, roots, and mashed leaves were used to treat colds and to wash out infected cuts by the Okanagan. The Sanpoil used the roots for treatment of diarrhea. The Thompson used the entire plant for rheumatism, steam baths, stomach pains, stiff and aching joints and muscles. A stronger mixture was used to battle syphilis.
Between its importance as a food source, its significant property as a healing agent, the large economic contribution and commercial use by the nursery industry, and then to be recognized by a national society, parsnipflower buckwheat has become an important and vital plant.