In a pocket of Mizzou Botanic Garden, tucked behind Mumford and Whitten halls, grows a collection of buckeyes, sometimes known as horsechestnuts. Seven of the 23 Aesculus species accepted by The Plant List — a working list of all known species maintained by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and Missouri Botanical Garden — are represented.
With slight variations, buckeyes have dark green leaves that are palmately compound: five to seven lovely, ribbed leaflets arise from a single petiole, or stem, often drooping gracefully. The trees’ large leaves produce a high grade of shade. But this time of year, more welcome than cooling shade, are buckeye’s gorgeous blooms, consisting of large panicles, or bloom candles, of tubular flowers. They range in color from white to yellow, pink and red, and shoot from the ends of the trees’ leafy branches. To take in this show, please direct your feet to the corner of University Avenue and Hitt Street.
Perhaps more familiar to some are the fruits of these trees, which are responsible for their common name. Encased in a leathery husk that can be smooth, rough or spiny, depending on species, are beautiful glossy nuts in rich shades of brown. Each has a paler brown spot where it was attached to the husk, with an overall visual effect that resembles the eye of a deer, hence buckeye.
Buckeye nuts are mythically considered good luck charms. In addition to improving one’s odds of being lucky on a daily basis, carrying a buckeye in one’s pocket was thought to cure physical pain from arthritis, rheumatism and headaches. One obscure source advocates wrapping a buckeye in a dollar bill to multiply riches.
Buckeyes are edible, but barely. As members of the soapberry family, most parts of the trees are considered poisonous. Indigenous Americans went to great lengths to remove toxins and grind buckeyes into a nutritious meal. Rather, it is better to treat yourself to delightful chocolate-coated peanut butter buckeye candies, so-called because of their resemblance to the nuts.
The wood of buckeye trees is some of the lightest — 28 pounds per cubic foot. In comparison, a cubic foot of oak is 75 pounds. It is easily whittled and shaped, and settlers used it to make household utensils and baskets.
In 1953, Ohio adopted the buckeye species Aesculus glabra, as its state tree. It is commonly known as the Ohio buckeye, or fetid buckeye because of the unpleasant odor of crushed twigs and leaves. Until last year, Kentucky held the National Register of Big Trees record for the largest Ohio buckeye — for 30 years. But in 2022, Ohioans proudly took back the title with a tree located in the front yard of a home in Huron County.
MUBG’s buckeye collection includes the Ohio Buckeye, which also is a Show-Me State native. It typically grows 20 to 40 feet, produces green-yellow flowers with pink accents and often sports attractive fall foliage.
Also in the collection is the Missouri native red buckeye, Aesculus pavia, which grows 12 to 15 feet and shows off with upright panicles of red to orange-red flowers, irresistible to returning hummingbirds, as are many buckeye species’ blooms.
Others in the collection include:
- Yellow Buckeye, Aesculus flava, is a medium-large deciduous tree that grows 50 to 75 feet with yellow blooms in 6-inch-panicles. Fall foliage is an attractive yellow, sometimes with shades of red. It is the largest of this country’s native buckeye species.
- European horse chestnut, Aesculus hippocastanum, is native to the Balkans. It typically grows 50 to 75 feet and produces white bloom candles up to 12 inches that fade to yellow, with a reddish center.
- Red horse chestnut, Aesculus x carnea, is the result of a cross between A. hippocastanum and A. pavia discovered in Europe in 1812. It grows 30 to 40 feet with showy red flowers in 6- to 8-inch-panicles. It is considered an excellent landscape specimen for wide open spaces.
- Japanese horse chestnut, Aesculus turbinata, grows 80 to 100 feet. Its creamy white erect bloom candles with hints of red are 4 to 8 inches long and its fall foliage is orange.
- Shrubby bottle brush buckeye, Aesculus parviflora, grows in part to full shade and reaches heights of 8 to 12 feet. It blooms a little later — in June and July — making it an excellent summer shade shrub. Blooms are white with red anthers and pinkish filaments reaching lengths of 12 inches and attract butterflies. Fall foliage is a lovely golden color.
Janice Wiese-Fales writes about the Mizzou Botanic Garden. Her columns appear twice monthly in the Missourian.
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