This short-trunked, neatly rounded, deciduous tree has low, sweeping branches and dense foliage that provides deep shade. It tolerates a variety of conditions, although it prefers rich, moist soils and performs poorly in compacted clay, sand, or dry soils. It’s a mid-sized understory species that typically grows about 40 feet tall and is often used as an ornamental because of its showy flowers and interesting fruits and foliage. Long spikes of yellowish-green flowers appear in early spring on the tips of branches as the leaves are unfurling--buckeyes are among the first trees to leaf out, and Ohio buckeye is the first of the Aesculus species to bloom in spring. The leathery green leaves are palmately compound, and they look like open hands hanging from long leafstalks. The tree is named for the nut it produces, which resembles the eye of a deer. Native Americans called the seeds "Hetuck", which means “eye of the buck.” Ohioans are honored to be called a buckeye, especially when it comes to OSU sports. The round, glossy buckeyes are used to make necklaces, and a look-alike confectionery has become a popular treat. However, the real buckeyes are highly toxic to all mammals except for squirrels. The flowers, bark, and stems emit an unpleasant odor when crushed, which helps to warn of the plant’s toxicity. This characteristic inspired two unflattering common names: stinking buckeye and fetid buckeye.
Buckeyes are native to the banks of streams and rivers, deciduous forests, and floodplains. They do well when planted on forest edges as an understory tree, near ponds or lakes, in woodland or pollinator gardens, and in naturalized areas. Choose your planting site carefully, because Ohio buckeye forms a deep taproot and is difficult to transplant.
Grows 20-60’ tall and wide at a moderate rate of growth.
Prefers part shade and tolerates full sun.
Prefers rich, moist, well-drained soils with silty clay. Tolerates other soils except for heavy clay, very sandy, or very dry. Withstands occasional drought or flooding.
Flowers bloom April-May in 6” clusters on the tips of branches. Each flower has 4-5 petals that form a tubular corolla. Seven white-and-orange stamens extend beyond the petals, and a single style reaches beyond the stamens. The fruit is a fleshy, golden-brown capsule with short spines or bumps. It contains 1-3 brown, nut-like seeds, each with a tan, circular “eye.”
Elliptical-shaped leaflets are in groupings of 5 to 7; they have serrated margins and are up to 6” long. They emerge bright green, changing to dark green in summer and to gold or sometimes reddish-orange in fall.
Trunks are about 2’ in diameter with corky, gray-brown bark. The branches bend toward the ground then arch back up, creating a rounded outline.
Plants in the Aesculus genus host 37 species of Lepidoptera larvae, including luna, imperial and polyphemus moths. Visitors include long-tongued bees, butterflies, long-horned beetles, and leafhoppers. Most mammals avoid the toxic leaves, nuts, and bark, but squirrels quickly eat the buckeyes.
Medicinal, Edible, and Other Uses:
Native Americans crushed the nuts into a salve for rashes and cuts. Minute doses were used to treat coughs, asthma, and intestinal irritations. Currently, prepared doses are used to treat arthritis pain.
Native Americans were able to eat buckeyes by roasting, peeling, mashing, then leaching them to remove the toxic elements.
Pioneers used the saponins and roots to make soap, and they produced black dye from the wood. Native Americans crushed parts of the plant into a powder and sprinkled it on the water to stun fish.
Caution: All parts of the plant are highly toxic to humans and animals.
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