Some of the sunny, often sandy slopes around the Tehachapi Mountains are currently alight with a very bright, yellow wildflower that almost glows with its distinctive color. This eye-catching native plant is called Sulfur Flower Buckwheat.
There are many wildflowers whose blooms are some shade of yellow — it is the most common color of native blossoms — and they range from the palest lemon yellow to deep golden. Sulfur Flower Buckwheat (Eriogonum umbellatum) stands apart, however, with a faintly greenish hue that is reminiscent of the DayGlo daylight fluorescent pigments used in safety vests and gear.
Eriogonum, typically pronounced air-ee-o-gon-um, is the genus name for all the wild buckwheats in California. It is derived from the Greek word erion which means "wool," and the word gonu which means "knee or joint," because the first species of wild buckwheat described by science is wooly on the underside of its leaves and has bent stems.
I mention this seemingly obscure genus of plant because in Kern County, it is not obscure at all — Eriogonum is the single best-represented plant genus in our entire 8,163 square-mile county, with 37 species and nine subspecies or varieties. Buckwheats? We got 'em.
Buckwheats are able to thrive with little rain, in poor soils that experience long hot summers. This makes them well adapted to California's Inner Ranges, and to Kern County's three-way mix of valley, mountain and desert.
Incidentially, California's wild buckwheats are not closely related to, nor in the same genus, as the plant also called buckwheat that is grown to produce flour for bread, breakfast cereal and soba noodles.
Although their small individual blossoms often require a magnifying lens to appreciate, buckwheats tend to produce clusters of little flowers that are beautiful in aggregrate. Many buckwheat flowers are some shade of white, cream or yellow, although Davidson's Buckwheat has tiny pink clusters that are currently producing faint pinkish-purple patches among the dried-out grasses in Tehachapi landscapes.
Sulfur Flower Buckwheat, with its mounds of conspicuous greenish-yellow flowers, can be startling when you round a corner on a winding road in the Tehachapi Mountains, and suddenly see part of a hillside that is luminous with mounds of bright flowers.
Sulfur Flower Buckwheat grows in a variety of forms, from a very low groundcover to robust clumps more than three feet tall. Most examples that I encounter in our area are from one to two feet tall. Like most buckwheats, its leaves are fairly small, which helps avoid water loss in arid environments.
Pollinators love buckwheat plants, and a sizeable clump of Sulfur Flower Buckwheat in full bloom attracts a crowd of bees, butterflies and other nectar or pollen-loving insects.
The Nuwä (Kawaiisu or Paiute) Indian people of the Tehachapi Mountains used many of Kern County's abundant buckwheats for food and medicine. The flowers of Sulfur Flower Buckwheat were crushed and placed on sores. Seeds from other buckwheat species were collected and ground into meal, and the hollow stems of some buckwheat species were used as pipes and pipe stems.
When I worked at the late lamented Mourning Cloak Ranch and Botanical Garden on Old Town Road, Sulfur Flower Buckwheat was one of the popular selections in the nursery. They are low maintenance, low water requirement plants that enhance native gardens.
Any plant that can bloom in profusion after months of no rain is to be respected, and buckwheats specialize in this talent. Kern County and the Tehachapi Mountains have an abundance of different buckwheat species, and our landscape is richer as a result.
Jon Hammond has written for Tehachapi News for more than 30 years. Send email to email@example.com.