Saturday, April 11, 2015

Red Buckeye Rules in Spring

Red buckeye (Aesculus pavia) is a plant so spectacular that it once inspired me to change my life, to change careers, to quit my job and study horticulture.

I was 33 and teaching English in Atlanta at a school I suspected was doing the kids more harm than good. It was springtime and, dedicated teacher that I was, I’d often spend my lunch break gazing out the window. I’d peer into the surrounding woods, which were full of red buckeyes in brilliant bloom. Trilliums nodded beneath them, beeches towered above, and ruby-throated hummingbirds zipped from flower to flower, their wings a silver blur. The scene was so lovely that it filled me with hope, and as I gazed out the window, I began to believe a better life was possible.

One day I came home and said to Rob, “I think what I’d really like to do is work with plants.”

And a few months later I was taking horticulture classes—learning to drive a tractor and graft camellias. The time I spent earning my certificate was one of the happiest, most exciting periods of my life..

All these years later, red buckeye is still one of my favorite plants. It’s highly ornamental and great for wildlife.

It’s one of the first plants in my yard to leaf out in spring. The leaves are red or bronze as they emerge, but they soon turn shiny bright green. The mature leaves are large and lush—star-like—each composed of five toothed leaflets that can measure up to 6 inches long.

The blooms come early too. In the first weeks of March they appear in showy 10-inch clusters that look like strings of Chinese firecrackers. But the flowers are full of nectar, not gunpowder, and they’re timed just right to meet the hungry ruby-throats as they return from their overwintering grounds in Mexico and Central America.

For these little birds, the red buckeye is a very important food source because it blooms at a time when many other plants are still dormant and nectar is tough to find. In fact, the ruby-throat is believed to be the red buckeye’s main pollinator, though the plant is also used by bees and some butterflies.

The fruit is ripe by the end of summer. It’s a light brown, leathery-skinned capsule containing one to three large, round, shiny brown seeds that are said to resemble deer eyes. (The seeds give the plant its name.) The seeds are beautiful and glisten like jewels, but, unfortunately, they’re poisonous and largely ignored by wildlife.

Red buckeye usually takes the form of a large shrub or small tree (8 to 10 feet is the typical height), but I’ve seen much larger specimens. On Easter my family and I went canoeing down the Chipola River, and up on the limestone banks stood venerable red buckeyes at least 30 feet tall. They had thick, sturdy trunks wrapped in pale, lichen-studded bark. Lipstick-red flowers bloomed high in the air, visited by tiger swallowtails.

Red buckeye is native from Central Florida up to North Carolina and west to Illinois and East Texas. It prefers neutral to alkaline soils, so you might want to add lime if your soil is acidic. Shade to part-shade is best, though plants can be grown in full sun with regular watering during the first year or two. Red buckeye loses its leaves early, often in July or August, which might be something to consider when you’re choosing a planting site. I grow my red buckeyes in a shady border on the south side of my backyard. The buckeyes are scattered among evergreen needle palms, so when they go dormant you don’t really notice; you’ve still got the green, fountain-like needle palms to enjoy.