Imagine the shiny mahogany-hued eye of a deer. Now picture hundreds of those eyes, transformed into nutlike seeds hanging heavy on the branches of trees. That's the trademark look of buckeye trees, a nut-bearing native of North America. The six species range from shrub to towering tree. They're all easy-to-grow beauties offering handsome upright flower clusters and a brilliant autumn display, along with the nuts, which are pretty but poisonous.
Buckeye Trees, From Ohio to Texas
If you're wondering what a buckeye tree looks like, you'll do well to be a bit more specific. There isn't one type of buckeye, but six, and they each look somewhat different. Perhaps the most famous is the Ohio buckeye (Aesculus glabra), the state tree of Ohio and the symbol of Ohio State. It's no mere shrub but can grow into a powerful tree 50 feet tall that spreads wide. Plant the Ohio buckeye, and you'll be rewarded with yellow-hued, upright spring flower clusters, brilliant orange autumn leaves and buckets and buckets of nuts. The nuts of all buckeyes are toxic but are used in crafts.
Even taller is the yellow buckeye (Aesculus flava) that grows in the wild from Pennsylvania to Tennessee and shoots up to 100 feet. The red buckeye (Aesculus pavia) is much shorter. It only grows to 20 feet tall, but its claim to fame is its ornamental value, with a heavy load of brilliant, red, tubular flowers that attract hummingbirds, exfoliating bark and open branch structure.
The Texas buckeye (Aesculus glabra var. arguta) looks a lot like the Ohio buckeye but is considerably shorter, ranging from shrub size to 40 feet tall and almost as wide. It has the same yellowish flowers and a toxic crop of lovely nuts. Painted buckeye (Aesculus sylvatica) is one of the first trees to leaf out in spring. It's an understory tree with yellow, light pink or deep pink flowers that resemble paint brushes.
Helping Buckeye Grow
Each type of buckeye has its own specific likes and dislikes, so tailor your plant care to its needs. In general, buckeyes thrive in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 4 through 7 or 8 and prefer deep, well-drained, moist soil.
Place the tree in a spot with some shade, since most buckeyes are understory trees in nature. If you happen to have a river or creek in your yard, your buckeye will love to be planted beside it. Buckeyes like to have their roots cool and moist, so if no creek is possible, water and mulch the root area well.
You can grow young trees you purchase at the garden store or plant the tree's seeds in the fall after they've ripened and fallen to the ground. Don't let the seeds dry out. Plant under three inches of worked soil and cover with mulch for winter.
Problems and Issues With Buckeyes
Buckeye seeds are very attractive to squirrels. If you're planting buckeyes from seeds, plant two seeds for every tree you hope to grow.
Don't worry too much about pests. Buckeyes are native trees and are virtually pest and disease free. However, they can be hit by a disease called leaf blotch. It doesn't kill the buckeye, but the leaves will look scorched and fall early.
The biggest issue of all is the toxicity of the tree and its seeds. Any part of the tree can be poisonous, and if children eat the nuts, it will destroy their kidneys. If you have small kids or pets that like to chew on tree parts, this may not be the tree for you.
From Alaska to California, from France's Basque Country to Mexico's Pacific Coast, Teo Spengler has dug the soil, planted seeds and helped trees, flowers and veggies thrive. A professional writer and consummate gardener, Spengler has written about home and garden for Gardening Know How, San Francisco Chronicle, Gardening Guide and Go Banking Rates. She earned a BA from U.C. Santa Cruz, a law degree from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall, and an MA and MFA from San Francisco State. She currently divides her life between San Francisco and southwestern France.