By Pauline Lloyd
Common Buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum) is a member of the Polygonaceae (Dock) family and is related to Black Bindweed (Fallopia convolvulus). It’s not a true cereal grain (not being in the grass family) but has grain-like qualities and uses. It’s an easy plant to grow and when grown in ideal conditions can reach about one metre in height. It produces a mass of flowers that are very attractive to insects. Buckwheat is a very versatile plant that is used mainly in the following ways:
Improvement of Soil Fertility: Buckwheat is most commonly grown as a green manure crop (or cover crop) in order to increase soil fertility and is usually dug in before it flowers at around 10-12 weeks after sowing. The plant material decays rapidly in the soil making nitrogen and mineral constituents available to later-sown crops.
Improvement of Soil Condition: Buckwheat’s extensive network of fine roots seems to improve the structure of the soil. Its roots also help to hold the soil together and to reduce erosion.
Provides Material for the Compost Heap: Buckwheat is sometimes grown in order to produce extra material for the compost heap. It can be added to the compost heap even after it has flowered.
Weed Suppression: Buckwheat is good for suppressing weeds as it grows rapidly producing masses of foliage that helps to smother weeds. However, Buckwheat is not suitable for over wintering because its foliage is killed off by frost and so it is mainly useful for suppressing annual weeds in the summer. There is some evidence that it can even out-compete and help to control quack grass. I am currently testing this out on my allotment. For example Cornell University’s College of Agriculture web site states that ‘Some perennial weeds, especially quack grass, are weakened by midsummer tillage and recover poorly in a stand of buckwheat’. Certainly by July 2009 I noticed that very little couch grass had grown back in the bed that contained the buckwheat, although this may be because I managed to dig out all of the couch roots.
Attracting Wildlife: Buckwheat’s masses of pink flowers are very attractive to hoverflies and can also provide nectar for foraging honeybees. Hoverflies are especially beneficial to stock free growers because their larvae feed on aphids. And when I came to harvest some of the ripe buckwheat grains in July I noticed that the buckwheat seemed to have quite a few unusual yellow spiders living on it as well.
Buckwheat for Grain Production: If buckwheat is allowed to flower it will go on to produce a crop of edible and highly nutritious buckwheat ‘grain’ and it is this last aspect of growing buckwheat that I intend to focus on for the rest of this article.
Growing our own in the UK
Sowing: Buckwheat has dark brown, irregularly-shaped seeds that bear some resemblance to very small beech nuts. The seeds of this frost sensitive plant can be sown any time between April and August. However, as it can take around 60 – 70 days for the grain to fully develop it really needs to be sown by July if it’s being grown for the purpose of grain production. The seed can either be broadcast or sown in drills about 6″ apart. As buckwheat doesn’t tend to flower very well in hot weather, it’s probably better to sow it later in the season rather than in the spring if you are growing buckwheat to produce grain. However, I sowed some seeds in April of this year and still managed to obtain a supply of ripe buckwheat grains by July despite the very hot temperatures reached in June 2009. Buckwheat will grow on most soils, including on poor, slightly acidic, low fertility or clay soils, but the soil must be well drained. Avoid adding too much fertiliser or yield will be reduced. Buckwheat makes an ideal second crop when sown after early garden vegetables such as peas. Growth is rapid and flowering can occur in as little as three weeks after planting when conditions are ideal.
Harvesting: Buckwheat is not a high yielding grain crop and because the seeds don’t all mature at the same time it can be somewhat difficult to harvest on a commercial basis. However, when growing on a smaller scale this shouldn’t be too much of a problem because the seeds can be removed by hand in small quantities as and when they ripen, with any unripe green seeds being left on the plant for harvesting at a later date. Alternatively, the whole plants could be harvested with a scythe, or cut down with garden shears at the end of the season when about 75% of the seeds are brown. After cutting down the plants tie them into bundles and hang them up to dry under cover. The seeds should be threshed off in some way when they are dry. Perhaps by shaking the seeds off into a container such as a bucket, by placing the whole plants into a sack and trampling on them, or even by placing the dry plants on clean sheets on the floor and beating them with a broom!
Pests and Diseases: Buckwheat has few pests or diseases, but some birds, including chickens and pheasants, like to eat the seeds and so you may need to use some form of protection when the seeds start to ripen. Animals such as deer and rabbits will also eat the seed.
Getting at the grain
Once you have harvested and removed the grains, these need to be processed in some way before use. The simplest way to process buckwheat grain is to grind it into flour. Various tools can be used to do this. I have made buckwheat flour by passing the grains through the grinding plate of my electric juicer. It is also possible to use a seed grinder, electric or manual coffee grinder, certain types of blender, or a pestle and mortar for grinding the grain. Try to grind just the amount of flour you require directly before use so that the flour is fresh. However, if you do grind more than you need, any left-over flour can be stored in the fridge in a screw top jar for a short period. After grinding, the resulting flour needs to be sieved in order to remove most of the ground up husks. Rub the flour through a kitchen sieve. The husk material left in the sieve can be composted. If you produce a large crop of buckwheat and are able to obtain a reasonable amount of flour from your crop, then this could be used to make buckwheat bread or pancakes. Also dehulled, whole buckwheat groats can be used to make cooked dishes like kasha. However, it is not easy to dehull buckwheat on a domestic scale as most of the equipment available for this purpose is costly and suitable for commercial use only. If you do not wish to consume your buckwheat grain, the seeds could simply be resown the following year in order to produce flowers to attract beneficial insects.
Interesting dishes, and a quick salad
Buckwheat is eaten all around the world, but is especially popular in Russia and in eastern European countries. It is eaten by Hindus living in the Himalayas on ‘Bart’ or fast days and is used to make soba noodles in Japan. The dish known as kasha is made from dry roasted and dehulled grains or ‘groats’. (The grains are roasted first to give them more flavour.) Buckwheat can also be ground into flour and then used in a variety of recipes – for example in pancakes, bread, griddle cakes, rissoles, noodles, pasta and in breakfast cereals. Smaller amounts of flour can simply be used for thickening soups and stews. The leftover dark brown hulls have many commercial uses, being mainly used for stuffing pillows and cushions. Tibetan families use the hulls for fuel, for bedding for farm animals and in packing.
Buckwheat grain can also be used to make beer, or distilled into spirit, or the unhulled grains could simply be germinated and used to produce trays of buckwheat greens for adding to salads or for juicing. To produce buckwheat greens: Soak some of the grains overnight in a bowl of water, then sprout them in a jar for one day before sprinkling them onto the surface of some trays of compost. Keep the compost moist by watering it when necessary. After about seven days the buckwheat greens are usually ready for harvesting. Harvest them with a pair of scissors.
Bonus: nutrition and health
Buckwheat is gluten free and can be eaten by people with coeliac disease or gluten allergies. It is high in fibre, providing about 10g fibre per 100g. Although it doesn’t contain any vitamin A or C, Buckwheat is a good source of protein (12- 15%), containing eight amino acids and being a particularly good source of the amino acids lysine, threonine and tryptophan. It also provides most of the B vitamins especially niacin and folate (30mcg/100g) and minerals such as iron (2.20mg/100g), calcium (18mg/100g), phosphorus and copper. Buckwheat contains rutin (4-6%), a bioflavonoid that is not found in other grains. Rutin is hydrolysed by intestinal glycosidase to yield quercetin, an aglycone of rutin, which is absorbed from the intestine.
Studies have indicated that buckwheat may have several important medical and health advantages. For example, buckwheat protein may inhibit cholesterol absorption and have hypocholesterolemic effects. Consuming buckwheat may also help to lower blood pressure. Buckwheat is also high in rutin (Vitamin P1), a bioflavonoid that can strengthen capillary walls. Several studies have shown that rutin may be of benefit to patients with Chronic Venous Insufficiency. One such study, looking at the effects of drinking buckwheat tea on leg oedema in patients with chronic venous insufficiency, concluded that it could have a favourable influence on patients with CVI such that further oedema development is prevented. Another study looking at the use of rutin in the treatment of CVI also concluded that it might be beneficial. In addition, rutin seems to have anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, antiallergenic and antiviral properties. Buckwheat also contains D-chiro-inositol, an important secondary messenger in insulin signal transduction, which is often deficient in people with Type II Diabetes. Studies are now being carried out to establish whether buckwheat could be of benefit to people with Type II Diabetes because it seems to help to maintain blood glucose levels. Finally, further studies are being done to establish whether buckwheat could be useful in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis.
Mail order suppliers include:
Organic Gardening Catalogue (also supplies buckwheat seed especially for producing buckwheat greens) – www.organiccatalogue.com
Tamar Organics – www.tamarorganics.co.uk
This article appeared in Growing Green International magazine Num 24 (Winter 2009), p8. The links to the health claims in the original article have been removed since the web pages are no longer there.