Changes in the Landscape: Observing the Buckeye Tree

Buckeye Tree in Spring Lisa A. Wisniewski

Buckeye Tree in Spring
Lisa A. Wisniewski

The past week has brought significant change to the appearance of the buckeye tree in my front yard.  These changes are traditional for this tree and this time of year, marking the waning days of summer and the upcoming fall season.

Buckeye Family Background

The buckeye in my front yard is an Ohio buckeye (Aesculus glabra), approximately 70 years old, towering above the surrounding landscape.  Other species of buckeye trees include:

  • Bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora)
  • California buckeye (Aesculus californica)
  • Painted buckeye (Aesculus sylvatica)
  • Red buckeye (Aesculus pavia)
  • Yellow buckeye (Aesculus flava)
  • Common horsechesnut (Aesculus hippocastanum)

The genus Aesculus is part of the soapberry family (Sapindaceae).  This family has leaves comprised of leaflets surrounding an axis or stem.  The flowers are arranged in clusters.  Fruit from this family is in the form of leathery nutlike “berry” comprised partly of saponin, which can be mixed with water to make soap.

Ohio Buckeye Facts

The Ohio buckeye is one of the most notable members of the species.  It can grow up to 70 feet tall and is usually taller than wider in stature.  It can also give off an odor when it is damaged, giving it the more popular name of Fetid buckeye.

Its natural range of growth includes Ohio and western Pennsylvania south to Alabama and west to parts of Iowa, Kansas, and Nebraska.

Quite a Specimen

Buckeye Blossoms in May Lisa A. Wisniewski

Buckeye Blossoms in May
Lisa A. Wisniewski

Early emerging green leaf shoots and white, delicate flowers make the tree in my front yard a welcome sign of spring.  Sitting at the end of my driveway, it invites many a passerby to stop and look at its beauty.  As a part of my yard, running, and biking routes, I marvel at its stature and appearance season after season, year after year.

This year, the buckeye was loaded with spring blooms from all the rain and warmer temperatures.  It quickly turned green, full of leaves, with numerous white clusters of flowers with light pink veins that acted as a haven for bees.  Walking under or near the tree, I could hear the bees buzzing as they moved from flower to flower.

Growing shells with porcupine-like stems Lisa A. Wisniewski

Growing shells with porcupine-like stems
Lisa A. Wisniewski

By the end of May, tiny green balls appeared, marking the beginning growth of the buckeye fruit itself.  The June rains pumped water through the tree leaves and branches, feeding the fruit and allowing it to grow larger.  As the growth continued and the July sun started to dry the outer shell, tiny porcupine-like spikes appeared on the surface of the shell.  August heat and sunlight has dried the shells further and allowed the inner berry or fruit to grow into a round, white nutlike mass.

Big Changes

Cut open shell revealing the nutlike seed inside Lisa A. Wisniewski

Cut open shell revealing the nutlike seed inside
Lisa A. Wisniewski

The biggest change in the appearance of the tree this past week has been in the color of the leaves.  Once deep green, the dry weather has promoted a change in leaf color to yellow and brown.  Having lived on the property around this tree all my life, I know that dry summer weather equates to early color change and leaf drop.  This year, the leaves will probably be more of a rusty brown before mid September.  The tree may even drop all of its leaves before the end of September.

Inner nut-like seed which will turn leathery brown Lisa A. Wisniewsk

Inner nut-like seed which will turn leathery brown
Lisa A. Wisniewsk

The warm, dry weather has not had affected the amount of buckeyes on the tree though.  This year, the abundance of buckeyes is quite a sight.  Each cluster is unique in its own way.  Some of the shells will yield a single buckeye, but other may yield two or three.  At full maturity, the inner fruits or nuts of the shells turn deep, leathery brown or brownish red.

As a child, my cousins and I used to gather these leathery inner masses and make outlines for roads, necklaces, or other art pieces.  We used to carry a few in our pockets, much to our mothers’ chagrin for once run through the washer, the buckeyes were prone to worms and mold.

Buckeye at sunset Lisa A. Wisniewski

Buckeye at sunset
Lisa A. Wisniewski

Buckeye Lore and Facts

The buckeye tree is steeped in legend and lore.  Here are a few facts that I find quite interesting:

  • Swedish botanist Carl von Linne took the botanical name Aesculus from Aesculapius, the mythological Greek god of medicine.
  • Native Americans gave the common name of buckeye to the tree due to the resemblance of the fruit to the eye of a male deer (known as a buck).
  • Buckeye fruits, also referred to as seeds or nuts, and buckeye bark are poisonous to humans and some animals. The fruits and bark are also bitter, but the bitterness can be removed by heating and leaching.
  • Buckeye wood is soft and light, making it easy to carve or whittle. These characteristics, along with its non-splitting properties, made it the ideal material for the first artificial limbs.
  • Extracts from the inner bark and fruit, or nut, have been used as medicinal cures for rheumatism and cerebro-spinal treatments.
  • The Ohio buckeye was adopted as the official state tree of Ohio on October 2, 1953, which is close to the time of the planting of the buckeye in my front yard by my late grandfather.
Buckeye near sunset Lisa A. Wisniewski

Towering specimen
Lisa A. Wisniewski

Resources and Related Links

Buckeye tree Arbor Day Foundation information – http://www.arborday.org/programs/nationaltree/buckeye.cfm

Buckeye legend and lore – http://forestry.ohiodnr.gov/ohiobuckeye

Buckeye species – http://www.clemson.edu/extension/hgic/plants/landscape/trees/hgic1031.html

Carl von Linne – http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/history/linnaeus.html

Saponin – http://www.britannica.com/science/saponin

Soapberry family – http://www.britannica.com/plant/soapberry

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