Buckwheat is not a cereal. The word cereal comes from the name of the goddess of wheat, Ceres. Buckwheat is not related to wheat. Edible buckwheat, Fagopyrum esculentum, is not in the family of grasses, Graminae, from which spring all our cereals, including corn, rye and barley. It is not even in the same order, Poales. Rather, it is part of the rhubarb and sorrel family, Polygonaceae, order Polygonales, as is the wild buckwheat, genus Eriogonum, whose flowers ornament our gardens.
What has taxonomy to do with growing our own food? Well, some people have great difficulty in digesting cereals, especially wheat. What can they substitute in order to receive the same satisfied feeling, the same energy, that a chunk of bread provides? Buckwheat might be the answer.
Fagopyrum esculentum, a cultivar (that is to say, a cultivated variety bred by humans) grows globally in cool temperate climates, making it ideal for Berkeley, filling the gap between early potatoes lifted in June, and fava beans which are sown in October. Raw buckwheat seeds from an organic food store germinate in a week, and flower within a month. The plants are fragile-looking, with heart-shaped leaves, totally unlike a cereal. Tiny pink buds open into small, five-petalled flowers. Seeds are surprisingly large, like plump pyramids, resembling those of the beech tree, called mast. The common name is said to derive from this, and the Latin (Polygonaceae) also obviously refers to the shape of its seeds.
Growing one’s own cereal substitute in relatively little space is a satisfying experiment for the home gardener. Temperamentally serene, buckwheat does well in a large pot, looks pretty, and does not seem to mind being crowded. If the crop fails, as crops do from time to time, Berkeley’s own Natural Grocery on Gilman Street carries in bulk both raw and toasted organically-grown seeds, which in spite of their size are softer than other whole grains, and can be easily ground into flour in a coffee grinder.
Nutritionally, buckwheat compares favorably with the cereals, and is a superior source of fiber, having four times the amount found in wheat. When it comes time to cook, think Russian.