GNPS members have chosen red buckeye (Aesculus pavia) as the Plant of the Year for 2014. Red buckeye occurs naturally in Georgia’s Coastal Plain and Lower Piedmont regions, but has been successfully introduced to most areas of our state. Its native range extends from North Carolina south to Florida, west to central Texas, and as far north as Illinois. It grows under the shade of taller trees in rich, acidic, mesic (containing a moderate amount of moisture) woodland areas and river bluffs as a shrub 10 to 15 feet high.
Red buckeye’s glossy, dark green leaves are broad, palmate, and quite attractive. Its long, red, tubular flowers are borne on upright panicles 6 to 10 inches long. Red buckeye blooms in March and April in Georgia, which coincides with the spring migration of the ruby throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris). Red buckeye is an important nectar source for the hummingbirds when nectar from other plants is scarce. Other nectar feeders that visit the red buckeye include eastern tiger swallowtail butterflies, bumblebees, and carpenter bees. The striking blooms are sturdy and remain attractive for several weeks. In late summer to early fall, the fruit ripens into a globular light brown seed capsule about 1 to 2 inches in diameter. Inside the capsule are 1 to 3 shiny seeds with pale scars, and are called buckeyes because they resemble the eye of a buck. The seeds are toxic and are avoided by most wildlife, although squirrels are able to eat them.
All Aesculus species contain toxins capable of causing muscle weakness and paralysis. Native Americans placed crushed buckeye seeds and branches in the water before fishing in order to slow the fish down so that they could be caught more easily; they also carried the seeds for good luck. Native American Cherokee used the ground seeds for a variety of remedies. Early settlers made a soap substitute from buckeye’s roots and a black dye from its wood.
Red buckeye is at its best when grown in rich, moist soil with excellent drainage, but it will tolerate less than perfect conditions. Since it is an understory shrub, it will bloom when grown in shade, but it will produce more blooms if it gets 3 to 4 hours of sunlight a day. If grown in full sun with a few hours of afternoon shade to protect against leaf scorch, red buckeye is capable of growing into a floriferous small tree that can grow to 25 feet or more in height.
This is one of the earliest woody plants to leaf out, and its emerging leaves present a striking structural appearance in a rosy, coppery color. Red buckeye is also early to lose its leaves, which you may want to take into consideration when deciding where to plant it in the garden. With summer’s heat and drought, its leaves turn yellow and drop to the ground in July or August. What will remain are its architecturally pleasing bare branches on which you’ll be better able to see perching songbirds.
Red buckeye is an underused native plant that can be incorporated into woodland gardens, rain gardens, beds, borders, or used as a specimen plant.
A variety of red buckeye, Aesculus pavia var. flavescens, has yellow flowers. It occurs naturally only on the western Edwards Plateau of central Texas on limestone soils. It is smaller than the more widespread variety with red flowers and grows from 5 to 15 feet high.
Prepared by Denise Hartline, for the Georgia Native Plant Society.
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