This summer annual is currently planted on much smaller U.S. acreage than years ago. Buckwheat was a much more popular crop before the Industrial Revolution delivered impressive new technologies to farms around the world. Notably, new fertilizers dramatically increased the productivity and profitability of other popular staples like wheat, corn and soybeans. (Accompanying those fertilizers were chemical weed-killers, to which buckwheat is very intolerant.)

Crop Comments: Why do they call it buckwheat?This “advancement” substantially reduced buckwheat production. In America, while over a million acres of buckwheat were harvested in 1918, by 1954 production decreased to just 150,000 acres. U.S. buckwheat acreage is now about half that last figure.

Several factors are now spawning revived interest in Fagopyrum esculentum (buckwheat’s scientific name). With the ever-increasing likelihood of extreme weather conditions becoming the new norm, there is need to explore options to extend or replace forages in livestock rations. Such need strongly encourages the cultivation of buckwheat. This crop boasts several positive attributes, offering increased appeal to growers faced with runaway crop input costs and climate uncertainties.

Buckwheat is a moisture-loving, cool climate, summer annual grain. Ag historians believe that cultivation began in Southeast Asia 5,000 – 6,000 years ago. From there it spread to Central Asia, the Middle East, then Europe, and then finally to North America in the 1600s.

Buckwheat is one of the quickest-growing green manure crops, taking only four to six weeks from planting to flowering, plus another four to five weeks to seed maturity. It suppresses weeds, protects soil from erosion, attracts beneficial insects (especially honeybees) and builds organic matter. It repels weeds through allelopathy – it secretes chemicals which serve as a natural herbicide, seriously discouraging many other plant species. It competes well because it germinates rapidly and because its dense canopy shades the soil. This aggressive growth chokes out most weeds.

Buckwheat’s name is derived from the seed’s appearance, which resembles that of the beech tree. The German words for beech and wheat are Buche and Weiz, so the name buckwheat actually means “beech-wheat.” However, it’s not wheat at all. It’s actually part of the rhubarb family, considered a fruit. (It’s also slightly related to Japanese bamboo – interesting, because Japan imports a lot of buckwheat grain from the U.S.)

Agronomy researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have shown that buckwheat’s dense canopy rapidly shades the soil, choking out most weeds while stealing solar radiation from less aggressive plant species. Thus, it’s often praised as a useful crop for controlling quack grass in Northeastern states, particularly if the land has been thoroughly tilled to break up that stubborn perennial’s sod. Ideally, such fields are autumn-plowed or early spring-plowed and disked or field-cultivated just before planting time.

Weed scientists report that buckwheat can be used to eradicate Canada thistle, sow thistle, creeping jenny, leafy spurge, Russian knapweed and perennial peppergrass.

F. esculentum also increases phosphorus’s and micronutrients’ availability for cash crops following in the rotation. It does so by liberating complex soil nutrients through acidulation. With this unique trait, plant root tips secrete acids (typically malic and citric) which chemically separate P and trace elements from soil particles. Thus released, these nourish the buckwheat, usually with enough liberated elements left over to feed the rotation’s next crop. However, buckwheat doesn’t fix nitrogen. Mature seed averages about the same amount of protein (12% – 13%) as most other small grains.

Buckwheat as a broadleaf annual crop normally reaches heights of two to three feet with a single succulent stem, several branches and flowers varying in color from white or light green to pink or red. It forms a dense, fibrous root system with a deep taproot. Most of its roots are concentrated in the top 10 inches of soil. Its biomass (total dry matter/acre) ranges between 2,000 and 3,000 lbs. Very attractive to honeybees, buckwheat also invites wasps and parasitic flies.

It does have two major shortcomings: intolerance to frost and extreme susceptibility to herbicide residue. Herbicide intolerance is the main reason why buckwheat acreage has dropped significantly since World War II. At that milestone, many of the chemicals used to make wartime munitions were diverted to ag chemical (pesticide) production.

F. esculentum may be planted until July 15, particularly on land which has been unproductive or overtaken by goldenrod and burdocks. Prepare a good seedbed, but don’t pulverize it. Plant it like other small grains, drilled or spun on, but only 50 lbs./acre – unlike most small grains, seeded at much higher rates. Drag in lightly, if spun on. Buckwheat tolerates pH of 5.0 – 6.0 as well as generally low fertility. Thus, it’s a great way to bring back abandoned land.

Human health-wise, University of Illinois scientists found that dark-colored honey – specifically that produced with nectar from buckwheat blossoms – contains 20 times as many antioxidants as what’s found in paler honeys. According to those researchers, antioxidants are the body’s first defense against free radicals producing inflammation and tissue damage. Although increasing antioxidants won’t reverse existing free radical damage, it can prevent further cell deterioration. Buckwheat honey packs the antioxidant power of the vitamin C in a tomato.

I’ve had good luck recommending folks plant 40 lbs. of Japanese millet and 20 lbs. of buckwheat per acre. The buckwheat liberates nutrients for the millet through acidulation. Its allelopathy discourages weed competition. Interestingly, allelopathy does not throw a curve to millet seedlings.

Another successful recommendation has been a blend of oats, tillage radishes and buckwheat. I’ve recommended, per acre, 5 lbs. of radish seed, 25 lbs. of buckwheat and a bushel of oat seed. The buckwheat will die with the first killing frost, but by that time it will have achieved its acidulation and allelopathy missions. Then the radishes will do their soil penetration thing, accompanied by the oats. When it gets really cold on the other end of the growing season, radishes and oats call it quits. But all three crops will have done a great job maintaining ground cover, quietly self-composting under the snow.