Buckeyes are distinctive trees, known for their early spring flowers and for the seeds that have inspired the name of this unique family of trees. The nut-like seeds are shiny and dark brown, with a light-colored spot that gives them the appearance of a deer’s eye. These seeds are popularly believed to bring good luck, and school children especially still carry them in their pockets as a charm. And while highly poisonous, buckeye seeds contain much protein and were used as a food source by Native Americans who boiled and leached them to remove their toxins.
Buckeyes are often small trees, with a spread nearly equal to their height. Ohio and yellow buckeyes are some of the larger species in this family, with heights of 50 feet or more. What makes buckeyes especially unique is their early spring flowers, which bloom as early as many woodland wildflowers. As well as greening up early, buckeyes also lose their leaves before most other trees in the fall. The wood of the buckeyes is pale and light, and it is sometimes used for paper, crate, and novelty item production. There are seven species of buckeye native to the United States, mostly found in the eastern half of the country.
The Buckeye’s Place in History
As well as the belief in the good fortune of its storied seed, the buckeye has been held to cure rheumatism and other, more minor ailments. Pioneering farm families also made soap from the kernels of buckeye seeds, and many a child’s cradle was carved from the wood of this tree. Before the advent of synthetic materials, buckeye wood was used to make artificial limbs.
Some Common Species
Ohio buckeye (Aesculus glabra) is an attractive tree often recognized by its rounded canopy and thick, deeply fissured, gray bark. The tree is valued for its early, showy spring flowers and for the equally early and striking orange and yellow color show its leaves produce in autumn or late summer. Ohio buckeye is seldom used as a street tree because of the odor it produces when damaged, giving it the popular name of Fetid Buckeye, and because of litter from its dropping fruit and leaves. Ohio buckeye’s natural range extends from Ohio and western Pennsylvania to parts of Alabama, and westward to areas of Kansas, Nebraska, and Iowa. (Grows in hardiness zones 4 to 7.)
California buckeye (Aesculus californica) is the unique western buckeye species. This little tree, usually no taller than 25 feet, grows in California’s coastal ranges and on western slopes. It is an especially lovely tree in spring, sure to be remembered by those who have seen it in full flower, with its low branches and five- to ten-inch groups of blossoms. (Grows in hardiness zones 6 to 8.)