By Megan Wannarka, Edited by Brian Dykstra
About the Plant
Buckwheat (Latin name Fagopyrum esculentum) is a pseudocereal grain that is primarily grown in the United States as a cover crop to help preserve topsoil and suppress weeds. The groats, (hulled kernels), are an edible cash crop, but only 30,000 acres (~12,150 ha) were grown in 2012. (Pavek, 2016)
Primarily found in Eastern Europe as a staple food, buckwheat was cultivated in Asia before being one of the earliest introduced crops to North America. Typically, the best land to grow buckwheat is late to frost in the fall and can be planted after a spring crop such as wheat. Low fertility soils can be helped with the addition of buckwheat as long as they are well-draining. (Björkman, 2019)
“Buckwheat is not a type of wheat or even a grass; therefore it is not a true grain. Sometimes referred to as a pseudo-cereal—since its seeds are cooked like cereal and made into flour as well—buckwheat is actually related to sorrel and rhubarb.” (Medrich, 2014)
Farmer Doug in front of his buckwheat field in Southern Minnesota, USA. Taken 2018 Photo credit – #SevenSundays via @wholegrainmilling on instagram
Seeding and yields
Buckwheat is an easy crop to grow for pollinators as it has both nectar and pollen and is accessible to honeybees, bumblebees and native bees (United States Department of Agriculture, 2015), as well as butterflies, moths and other insects.
“BUCKWHEAT. Buckwheat is useful for rapidly covering the soil and crowding out weeds. Since it goes to seed eight to ten weeks after being seeded, we take note to mow it before then. Because buckwheat is highly sensitive to frost, late August is our latest seeding date. Seeding rate: 3.3 pounds/100 feet of bed” (Fortier, 2014)
Flowering plants can also be coppiced before going to seed to produce another nectaring flower head. This was found out by a researcher at the University of Minnesota raising bumble bees (Bombus impatiens) and monarchs (Danaus plexippus) on an assortment of nectaring flowers.
Maybe you’ve seen this dark jar of honey in a store and thought to yourself…is that even honey? The color resembles brown, rich gravy, not the amber yellow that brings to mind “honey.” But would you taste it? Most people think that honey “should be” a shade of transparent yellow or orange or maybe even light brown color. But not an opaque dark brown, leading many not even to taste if they have the opportunity.
I do have to warn you if you choose to smell buckwheat honey unless you grew up on a farm, the smell might be off-putting. It typically resembles barnyard warmth or animal. Now, after telling you that, why would anyone want to taste this honey? Because you will be rewarded with something that tastes like caramel, chocolate, deep cigar smoke, and even some salt in the case of the Midwest United States and Central Canadian Buckwheat honey. Not all buckwheat honey is the same, year to year the changes of moisture in the soil (rainfall) will change the plant’s ability to produce a weak to strong nectar that honeybees will make into honey, even if in the same location year to year.
Just like wine, the same honey, produced in different regions, will take on different terroir. Not terror, like being scared, but all the factors around making a foodstuff from a region. The type of variety of plants you are growing, the mineral content of the soil, how much rainfall and sunlight happens in that particular place and I’m sure I’m missing some other crucial environmental factor that plays a part in this.
In my experience, buckwheat honey from the coasts of North America has a stronger flavor than the ones produced in the Midwest of the United States and Central providences of Canada. So, if you are lucky enough to find this honey, also ask where it is from. It’s flavor still might not bring you back for a second taste, but you also might be pleasantly surprised and finding yourself enjoying this new idea of honey in all its deep flavors.
Beekeeping notes (growing season, soil preference, nectar, and honey yields)
“…beginning and ending dates for the typical nectar flow of the desired honey crop and arrive a few days in advance with empty supers and stack the colonies up with empty equipment. If the flow goes well, monitor the progression of the flow. Once the flow has clearly peaked, and the blossoms are waning, the supers should be taken off before the next flow, if there is one, starts and contaminates the crop.” (Tew, 2015)
“Fast-growing annual crop, flowering 4-6 weeks after sowing and can continue for 4-15 weeks. Honey fast to crystalize. Annual honey production; Pollen color: light yellow-green, Nectar is available only in the morning. Honey is very dark (molasses color) with strong flavor. Lime and fertilizer affects nectar yield.” (Sammataro & Harman, 2013)
“Buckwheat flowers prolifically during late summer, with most nectar secretions occurring in the morning. Buckwheat requires very fertile, loose, moist soil, plus cool weather for maximum nectar flow. If anyone of those requirements is absent, nectar flow will be reduced by 50% or more. Honey crops may vary year to year, with yield increase up to 25 pounds per colony or 8 pounds per day for 2-3 weeks under favorable conditions. Average sugar concentrations are 7 to 48%. Pollen proteins at 10% are below minimum honey bee nutritional needs (20%).” (The Xerces Society, 2016)
“[Blooms] July to August. Newfoundland, west to British Columbia. A commonly cultivated species, occasionally escaping to fields, waste places, and along roadsides. Introduced; a native of Asia.” (Crompton & Wojtas, 1993)
“The white [can also be pink] flowers have eight conspicuous orange-yellow nectaries. The honey is a dark purple usually referred to as black and it is heavily bodied with a strong flavor and odor. In spite of this, it is well-liked by many people in the buckwheat belt who consider all the other honeys insipid. It yields nectar only in the morning and bees often become very cross in the afternoon when the flow ceases.” (Lovell, 1966)
“Annual [blooms in] summer, as occasionally planted. A surplus honey producer where grown. A native of Asia and grown commercially for seed. Furnishes very little pollen but copious dark nectar. Nectar sugars about 50%.” (Burgett, Stringer, & Johnston, 1989)
“Temperate-zone annual grown for its seed which is ground into flour; and are also used for stock and poultry seed. Flowers (which show some complex variations) are bisexual but usually incapable of automatic self-pollination. Burin the morning (only) then secrete much nectar, which attracts bees, and the plant is an important honey source. The bees effect cross-pollination and are unquestionably the best pollinators of buckwheat. In USSR, 80% of seeds set with 5 colonies/ha, but only 58% of 1/ha.” (Crane & Walker, 1984)
“Flowering 12-4 [months], 1-2 China. Few fields of what once was a major honey crop for Highveld beekeepers. Occasionally patches of naturalized plants. Honey: very dark, strongly-flavoured, characteristic musty aroma. Pollen light yellow to light greyish-yellow, with 146% crude protein.” (Johannsmeier, 2016)
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References and Additional Resources
Björkman, T. (2019, Dec 10). Where to grow buckwheat. Retrieved from Information for Buckwheat growers: http://www.hort.cornell.edu/bjorkman/lab/buck/guide/wheretogrow.php
Burgett, D. M., Stringer, B. A., & Johnston, L. R. D. (1989). Nectar and Pollen Plants of Oregon and the Pacific Northwest : an illustrated dictionary of plants used by honey bees. Blodgett: Honeystone Press.
Crane, E., & Walker, P. (1984). Pollination Directory for World Crops. London: International Bee Research Association.
Crompton, C. W., & Wojtas, W. A. (1993). Pollen grains of Canadian honey plants. Ottawa, Ontario: Canada Communications Group.
Johannsmeier, M. F. (2016). Beeplants of South Africa: Sources of Nectar, Pollen, Honeydew and Propolis for Honeybees (Vol. 37). Pretoria: South African National Biodiversity Insititute.
Lovell, H. B. (1966). Honey Plants Manual: A Practical Field Handbook for Indentifying Honey Flora (2nd ed.). Louisville: A. I. Root Company.
Pavek, P. L. . (2016). Buckwheat Plant Guide (Fagopyrum esculentum). Retrieved from USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service website: https://plants.usda.gov/plantguide/pdf/pg_faes2.pdf
Sammataro, D., & Harman, A. (2013). Major Flowers Important to Honey Bees in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic States (2nd ed.). Flint Hill: D. Sammartaro.
The Xerces Society. (2016). 100 Plants to Feed the Bees: Provide a Healthy Habitat to Help Pollinators Thrive. Storey Publishing, LLC.