For the most part, only those who are gardeners will know the answer to the question: What is a buckeye? If you are a sports fan, your answer will be the football team of Ohio State. If you are from Ohio, you’ll answer that it’s the Ohio state Tree (Aesculus glabra). Although horse chestnuts are in the same genus, you should not confuse buckeyes with horse chestnuts. Buckeyes are native to North America, and horse chestnuts are from Europe and Asia.
Although there are several buckeye species that are native to our state, this article will focus on red buckeye (Aesculus pavia var. pavia) and bottlebrush buckeye (A. parviflora).
Red buckeye is a small shrub or tree, growing as an understory plant in woodland gardens. They are easily identified by their compound leaves that are palmate (that is, they have five leaflets that spread out like the palm of your hand). My first experience with red buckeye was finding it on the golf course at Creekside Golf Club in Hiram. The shrub colonizes so that you eventually have a “grove” of shrubs. Where the canopy is not too dense, the buckeye will flower bright red and in a panicle 6 to 9 inches long. They tend to grow better in a more alkaline soil.
Hummingbirds and butterflies visit the red buckeye in early spring, since it blooms as early as mid-March. Red buckeyes have great fall color and, if sufficiently mature, will produce hard seeds in the fall. The best way to obtain a new plant is to plant the buckeye seeds when they are mature. You can stratify them in the refrigerator for three months, but winter weather can take care of that for you.
Bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora) is blooming now. It has long clusters of delicate white flowers up to 12 inches long. It can colonize and grow up to 15 foot wide. The shrub can be pruned after it blooms. You should use the bottlebrush buckeye in large-scale plantings, perhaps as the central point of your garden and scale down the plantings in front of it.
Unlike the red buckeye, the bottlebrush buckeye doesn’t mind acid soil and can tolerate alkaline soil. This buckeye is prone to leaf scorch in sunny locations. I also found out
today that the Japanese beetles love both the blooms and the smaller leaves near the top of the shrub.
Like the red buckeye, the fall fruit is a hard capsule that contains 1 to 3 seeds. Plant them immediately after picked from the bush. The one pictured here was grown by my husband from seeds I brought from a trip to a nature preserve. These are great for a larger pollinator garden (if you don’t mind the occasional Japanese beetle).
Marjorie Stansel is a Douglas County Master Gardener Extension Volunteer. Additional information/publications on gardening can be found at the University of Georgia’s Extension website. The local UGA Douglas County Extension office is available to assist, email@example.com or 770-920-7224.