Red buckeye, a small deciduous shrub or tree with brilliant-red flowers in early spring, grows in a wide range of soils across the state and is an ideal choice for smaller properties. It grows 10 to 20 feet tall at a slow to medium rate, developing an oval, rounded crown that becomes more symmetrical with age. Although it tolerates full sun, red buckeye thrives as an understory specimen and develops a more open, branchy appearance in shadier sites. After one or two years of growth, it flowers with 6 to 10” panicles in April and May with blooms that last for several weeks, attracting hummingbirds, bees, and a variety of butterflies. After blooming, the tree produces leathery, spiky seed pods that encase the well-known Ohioan symbol that looks like 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. Another appealing feature of the buckeye tree is the palmately compound leaf that resembles an open hand hanging from red leafstalks. The leaves emerge as bronze or purple, growing ten inches long and changing to dark green as they mature. This attractive tree is sometimes multi-trunked and spreads by suckers to form thickets. Site it away from patios and sidewalks because the nuts could be a safety hazard.
Native habitats include woodlands, thickets, river and stream banks, and rocky hills. Red buckeye is well-suited for rain gardens, banks of water ponds and streams, woodland gardens and edges, and for use as a hedge.
Grows 10’–20' tall with a spread of 10–20'; rarely grows to 30’ tall.
Prefers at least 4 hours of direct, unfiltered sunlight. Does best if protected from afternoon sun, especially in dry conditions.
Prefers rich, moist, more-acidic soils, but also grows in well-drained sand, loam, heavy clay, and limestone soils. Withstands occasional standing water.
Upright panicles of 1” tubular flowers appear in April and May. Smooth, light- brown, 2” capsules contain 1-3 shiny seeds, or buckeyes, that ripen July-August.
Elliptical compound leaves with 5 leaflets are 3-6” long with serrated margins and long, pointed tips. Foliage appears earlier than that of most trees, and leaves usually drop by September. Fall color is a bright lemon yellow.
Tree may be multi-trunked or single, depending on pruning. Bark is brownish gray and flaky.
Host plant for 37 species of Lepidoptera larvae, including four-spotted angle moth, buckeye pinion, imperial and polyphemus moths. Visitors include long-horned beetles and leafhoppers. Most mammals avoid the toxic leaves, nuts, and bark, but squirrels sometimes 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.
Native Americans crushed parts of the plant into a powder and sprinkled it on the water to stun fish.
Pioneers used the saponins and roots to make soap, and they produced black dye from the wood.
Caution: All parts of the plant are highly toxic to humans and animals.
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