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Anne K Moore
Photograph Anne K Moore

Not too many trees (or nuts, as you prefer) have a state and their inhabitants nicknamed after them. The Ohio buckeye, Aesculus glabra, is a huge tree reaching heights of 50 feet with a spread of 30 feet. The hospital driveway in the small Ohio town where I grew up was lined with these majestic trees. (I hope it still is.) My mother would take me there so we could pick up the fallen buckeyes, the brown horse chestnuts said to bring good luck if you carried them in your pocket or purse. Mom had a bucket-full from years of gatherings. The Ohio buckeye grows in USDA Zones 3-7 and needs park-like surroundings to handle its large size.

Buckeye trees come in several shapes and sizes, from 80-foot tall horse chestnuts to 10 feet tall bottlebrush buckeyes. There is probably one perfect for where you live.

All buckeye trees flower with blossoms clustered upright along a stem, called panicles, which draw in hummingbirds and butterflies. Make sure no one, especially children, put the shiny brown nuts in their mouths. All buckeye nuts are toxic to humans. The leaves can also be toxic, which makes them deer resistant.

The California buckeye (Aesculus californica) blooms in early summer in USDA Zones 7-8. The white flowers, sometimes touched with pink, grow on a short trunked tree making it look like an overgrown bonsai. It can reach heights of 25 feet by 30 feet wide. You should grow it in full sun for its fragrant flowers and its ability to fill a large nook in the landscape.

The bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora) is listed as a suckering shrub 10 feet tall by 15 feet wide in The American Horticulture Society A-Z Encyclopedia of Plants. In my garden it is more tree-like with very little suckering. I wanted a shrub so I cut it down drastically last year. It is a Southeastern native shrub but it is not too persnickety about climate and can be grown from USDA Zones 4-9. 12-inch tall panicles of white flowers cover this shrub in the early summer. Grow it in sun or part shade. The yellow fall leaf color is an added bonus. I am proud of my little shrub/tree since I grew it from a single buckeye. The photo is of its first blossom some 8 years ago.

There is a shrub also called bottlebrush (Callistemon citrinus) which is not related to the buckeyes. This signifies why you need to use the botanical name rather than the common name when searching for plants. The bottlebrush shrub has deep red flowers. It prefers full sun, or at least 6 hours of sun, to do well. Its red flowers more closely resemble bottlebrushes to me than the Aesculus bottlebrushes. It is suited to a warm to hot garden where the ground does not freeze. It is an evergreen native to Australia. USDA Zones 8-11.

Red Buckeye (Aesculus pavia) is an ornamental little Southeastern native tree with bright red blossoms in spring. It reaches 10-20 feet tall and as wide and is perfect for the small garden and a shady garden. It is one of the first trees to flush out in spring with large green leaves. When it is in bloom, it is spectacular. Red buckeyes can be precocious, blooming when they reach 3 feet tall in some cases. Site it in part or full shade in any soil that is moisture retentive. If you grow the red buckeye in full sun, it will need thick mulch and consistent watering to keep the roots cool. The red buckeye was given a Pennsylvania Horticulture Society Gold Medal award in 1995. USDA Zones 4-8.

Buckeyes are easy to raise from seed. If you would like to try raising your own buckeye, you need to sow the seeds fresh so plant them as soon as they are ripe. If an outer shell (Ohio buckeye) encases the shiny nut, remove the shell to expose the brown nut inside before planting. The bottlebrush buckeyes grow without a casing. You will find them at the base of where the flower spikes grew.

Posted August 21, 2014

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