'Ci Qiao' Tartary Buckwheat
Improvement status: Landrace
Seeds per packet: ~25
Germination tested 12/2021: 86%
Life cycle: Annual
EFN INTRODUCTION. NEW FOR 2022. We're beyond excited to be offering this very special plant for the first time in this country.
Tartary buckwheat (Fagopyrum tataricum) is a close relative of common buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum), and it has many of the same uses, but it also has some important additional traits — including better tolerance of cold temperatures and drought, and higher antioxidant levels, vitamins, and minerals. While considered a "minor" crop, we believe it is destined for much more. Indeed, it has a long history of local and regional importance in many disparate parts of the world, including China, Japan, Bhutan, Nepal, and northern India in Asia, Northern Italy, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Luxembourg, Belgium, and Germany in Europe, and Quebec, New Brunswick, Maine, and Appalachia in North America. It is still grown commercially in some of those places, and we're pleased to report that Tartary buckwheat flour, along with seeds for edible sprouts, is available for sale in Quebec right now. The beloved "ployes" pancakes, famous across French-speaking Acadia (northern Maine, parts of New Brunswick, and Quebec), were originally made from Tartary buckwheat flour, and traditionalists there still insist on its use (see photo). ("Tartary" is an archaic European term for a large, little-known-at-the-time region spanning much of Central Asia and the northern part of modern China, from the Caspian Sea through the -Stans, the Himalayas, Mongolia, all the way to the Manchurian Pacific coast. The species is indeed believed to originate in the heart of that region, possibly in Xinjiang or Tibet, which explains its notable cold hardiness and frost tolerance.)
A few years ago we did a side-by-side trial of the entire USDA Tartary buckwheat collection (76 accessions), featuring varieties from China, Bhutan, Nepal, Maine, Pennsylvania, and Maryland, along with a couple of other varieties we came across from Maine and Quebec. In all, we evaluated 78 varieties for overall agronomic potential (in New Jersey) and any interesting traits. We were hoping one or two might prove to be perennial — as there are some perennial buckwheat species out there and rumors that a perennial Tartary buckwheat might exist — but, alas, we only found annuals. We did, however, find a few strains with some very interesting qualities, and in 2021 we finally grew out enough of two of them to put them in this catalogue. Since that first trial, 'Ci Qiao' has always been the most intriguing since it was the only one whose seeds have a distinct winged look to them, and — importantly — some of the seeds seem to also have loose hulls.
Tartary buckwheat is generally much more difficult to de-hull than common buckwheat, so the entire seed is typically ground into flour and as much as possible of the hull is then sifted out. The presence of hull imparts a bitter flavor to the flour, which is why the species is sometimes called "bitter buckwheat" (French speakers call it "sarrasin vert" or "green buckwheat"). But flour that contains the groat alone has a mild yet rich flavor, somehow closer to wheat flour than common buckwheat flour (and, to my tastes, much more delicious). This variety from China has a hull that sometimes splits open, indicative of an overall looseness which may allow the hull to be mechanically threshed from the raw groat inside. Threshable varieties are known in China as "rice tartary," and to my knowledge there are not any "rice tartary" varieties commercially available outside of China right now. We believe that this 'Ci Qiao' is either a true "rice tartary" or perhaps an intermediate form (we haven't grown enough to experiment on it with mechanical threshing). Interestingly, the name hints at this being a unique Tartary buckwheat, with "qiao" meaning buckwheat, and "ci" (which has MANY meanings in Chinese) meaning "unusual" or "wonderful."
Happily, 'Ci Qiao' is also well-suited to our Mid-Atlantic climate, while many other Tartary buckwheat varieties fail to thrive there, or fail to produce much because they start flowering rather late. This variety can begin flowering and setting seed at less than a foot in height. Like other Tartary buckwheats, the seeds ripen over a long period of time, so it's best to either harvest them by hand every week or so, or wait until there are a large proportion of ripe seeds on the plants (presuming birds or field mice don't steal them) and then harvest the whole plants and hang to dry (or wind-row if you're growing a large field of it).
In parts of East Asia, especially China, Tibet, Bhutan, and Nepal, the plant is still commonly grown both as a grain and for a medicinal tea, which is made from the entire plant. The roasted seeds are also a popular tea, which can be found in some Asian markets in this country. The plant is believed to be the most potent natural source of rutin, a powerful and incredibly healthy antioxidant, but it is seldom used commercially as a rutin source (though many companies now sell rutin as a supplement). It is also a major potential source of quercetin, another compound much sought after as a nutritional supplement. A recent article entitled "Tartary Buckwheat in Human Nutrition" published in the journal Plants — an international, peer-reviewed, open-access journal — outlines a wide range of potential health benefits from including Tartary buckwheat in one's diet, from weight loss to serum cholesterol reduction to fighting cancer. Like all buckwheat, it is gluten-free, so an excellent wheat substitute for people suffering from celiac disease and others whose bodies don't tolerate gluten well.
Also like common buckwheat, Tartary buckwheat has value as a honey plant and a cover crop. It can grow a good-enough crop on soil with poor nutrition, and in otherwise marginal environments, so it is a resilient crop and good for agroecological, climate-change-mitigating farming systems. We don't have a huge amount of these seeds, but we hope to have more in the future — and we're eager to find out how it does for all of you!
GROWING TIPS: Start in flats or direct seed, once the risk of frost has passed. Plants should be grown somewhat close to each other, as they will support each other in staying upright (if planted in neat rows they are liable to fall over, unless the rows are very close together -- six or 8 inches or so). Seeds should be planted about half an inch deep.