Buckwheat and other smartweeds

One of the fondest memories of my childhood was the “Halloween Breakfast” served by my grandmother on the first day of November. Stacks of pancakes made with freshly ground buckwheat flour obtained from a local mill, covered with gobs of butter and buckwheat honey or maple syrup, and flanked by spicy sausage adorned the table. That was a breakfast fit for a king, or a lumberjack! Halloween Breakfast was a tradition in the hills of eastern Tennessee where my grandmother grew up, and she continued the tradition when she and her three small children migrated to Texas. Partaking of the traditional breakfast was, according to legend, supposed to purge you of any evil spirits or “spells” you might have encountered the night before. Buckwheat, a member of the smartweed family, was cultivated in Europe and Asia for hundreds of years before the colonists brought it to North America. It is still widely cultivated on the continent, especially in Russia, where it forms a significant part of the diet of the rural population. Large crops of buckwheat are also raised in France and Germany. In fact, the name buckwheat comes from the German word buchweizen, meaning beech wheat because the dark, triangular seed resembles a miniature nut of the beech tree. Buckwheat is grown less extensively than in earlier times in the United States, with about two-thirds of our crop coming from Pennsylvania and New York. The plant normally thrives in cool, moist, temperate regions and grows best in well-drained soil with a high sand content. It will grow, however, in other ecological situations. In addition to making it into flour, buckwheat is grown as a fertilizer and a cover crop. The straw can be used for animal food and bedding. It grows so rapidly that it can be planted in midsummer in the north and it will usually ripen before the first frost. A field of buckwheat, blanketed with the white and pink flowers, is a paradise for honeybees. In northern climes, buckwheat flowers are the principal source of late in the season nectar for bees intent on laying in a supply of honey for the winter. Some connoisseurs insist buckwheat honey, with its distinctive flavor, is better than any other type. In addition to buckwheat, other members of the smartweed family include such cultivated species as sugar and garden beets, Swiss chard, and rhubarb. Many of the over 800 species of the smartweed family belong to the genus Polygonum which translates into “many knees.” The stems have swollen knots or joints and often make zigzag bends where the leaves are attached. Not surprisingly, some members of the group are called knotweeds. The common knotweed, or goose grass, is a sprawling plant with tiny, oval leaves. It is often encountered in the packed earth of footprints, lawns, barnyards, or in the cracks of sidewalks. The seeds of the knotweed are nut-like and were parched by the Indians of the southwest to make “pinole” which was usually used as an emergency ration. Virginia knotweed, or jump seed, occurs in woodlands, forming waist-high thickets or crisscrossing wands. Hikers in autumn are often irritated when the seeds of this plant bombard them when switches of the plant are disturbed. Each seed has hooked spines at its tip and sits at the end of a short stalk with a brittle joint. When the spines are touched, the seed is propelled for a distance of up to 10 feet in the manner of an old fashioned popgun, an interesting evolutionary adaptation for seed dispersal. The plentiful and nutritious seeds of the smartweeds and knotweeds furnish an important part of the diets of waterfowl, upland game birds, songbirds, and small mammals. A weed is sometimes defined as a plant growing where you don’t want it to grow, and smartweeds frequently fit this definition. Nevertheless, the many benefits man and other animals derive from this diverse family of plants far outweigh any nuisance factor they may present at times. Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960-1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

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