Buckwheat is the common name of several plants in the Polygonaceae family. The genera of this family include Fagopyrum, Erigonum, and Fallopia. Erigonum and Fallopia are referred to as “wild buckwheat,” whereas Fagopyrum is “common buckwheat.” Despite the name, common buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum and
Fagopyrum sagittatum in North America) is not related to wheat (Triticum), nor is it a cereal or a grass. It instead is a seed that is considered a pseudocereal. It is used in much the same way as cereals, including grinding the seeds into flour, but it is a broadleaf plant unrelated to cereal plants. Eriogonum is a common chaparral that grows throughout the western United States. It is especially common in California.
Common buckwheat (Fagopyrum), which accounts for 90 percent of the world’s production of buckwheat, is a fast-growing, broad-leafed plant that typically begins to produce seed in 6 weeks and ripens at 10 to 11 weeks. Common buckwheat plants grow to about 30 to 50 inches in height. They contain five-petaled flowers, which appear in 25 to 30 days. Plants have a fibrous superficial root and deep taproots.
The optimal climate for growing buckwheat is moist and cool, but it is sensitive to frost, which can kill the crop. If temperatures become too high and the air too dry, flowers may blast forth, preventing seed formation. Buckwheat can grow far north and at various altitudes and enjoys a variety of soil types. It grows well in infertile, poorly drained soils as long as the climate is moist and cool. Germination occurs at temperatures of 45°F to 105°F. One cup of buckwheat seeds, about 170 grams, contains only 154 calories, 34 percent of the recommended daily allowance of manganese, 25 percent of the amino acid tryptophan, 21.4 percent of magnesium, 18.1 percent of fiber, and 12.5 percent of copper. Buckwheat lowers insulin and glucose in the body and may protect against diabetes.
Buckwheat has been grown in North America since colonial times. It was a common crop on farms of the northeast and north-central states. Peak U.S. production occurred in the mid-19th century, when the crop was used primarily as livestock feed and in the production of flour. One century later the crop was grown on only 50,000 acres of U.S. land, with the leading producers being New York and Pennsylvania in the East and Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and North Dakota in the upper Midwest. Today, Canada grows more buckwheat than the United States. Buckwheat gained a resurgence in popularity in the mid-1970s in step with the rising demand for commercially prepared breakfast cereals. Buckwheat was also shipped to Japan at this time to be used in the production of buckwheat noodles. The upsurge in buckwheat’s popularity coincided with the release of statistics compiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service that claimed that the amino acid composition in buckwheat made it superior in nutritional value to all types of cereal, including wheat and oats. This information boosted sales of the product. At the beginning of the 20th century, Russia was the world’s leader in buckwheat production, where 6.5 million acres of land was devoted to growing the crop. China took over as the world’s production leader until 2005, when Russia again resumed the title.