Growing buckeyes from seed

Buckeye

Buckeyes are distinctive trees, known for their early spring flowers and for the seeds that have inspired the name of this unique family of trees. The nut-like seeds are shiny and dark brown, with a light-colored spot that gives them the appearance of a deer’s eye. These seeds are popularly believed to bring good luck, and school children especially still carry them in their pockets as a charm. And while highly poisonous, buckeye seeds contain much protein and were used as a food source by Native Americans who boiled and leached them to remove their toxins.

Buckeyes are often small trees, with a spread nearly equal to their height. Ohio and yellow buckeyes are some of the larger species in this family, with heights of 50 feet or more. What makes buckeyes especially unique is their early spring flowers, which bloom as early as many woodland wildflowers. As well as greening up early, buckeyes also lose their leaves before most other trees in the fall. The wood of the buckeyes is pale and light, and it is sometimes used for paper, crate, and novelty item production. There are seven species of buckeye native to the United States, mostly found in the eastern half of the country.

The Buckeye’s Place in History

As well as the belief in the good fortune of its storied seed, the buckeye has been held to cure rheumatism and other, more minor ailments. Pioneering farm families also made soap from the kernels of buckeye seeds, and many a child’s cradle was carved from the wood of this tree. Before the advent of synthetic materials, buckeye wood was used to make artificial limbs.

Some Common Species

Ohio buckeye (Aesculus glabra) is an attractive tree often recognized by its rounded canopy and thick, deeply fissured, gray bark. The tree is valued for its early, showy spring flowers and for the equally early and striking orange and yellow color show its leaves produce in autumn or late summer. Ohio buckeye is seldom used as a street tree because of the odor it produces when damaged, giving it the popular name of Fetid Buckeye, and because of litter from its dropping fruit and leaves. Ohio buckeye’s natural range extends from Ohio and western Pennsylvania to parts of Alabama, and westward to areas of Kansas, Nebraska, and Iowa. (Grows in hardiness zones 4 to 7.)

California buckeye (Aesculus californica) is the unique western buckeye species. This little tree, usually no taller than 25 feet, grows in California’s coastal ranges and on western slopes. It is an especially lovely tree in spring, sure to be remembered by those who have seen it in full flower, with its low branches and five- to ten-inch groups of blossoms. (Grows in hardiness zones 6 to 8.)

A California buckeye in full bloom. Photographs by Phil Van Soelen

Think of any image of California’s natural beauty, and there’s almost certainly a tree in it. It might be a coast redwood, giant sequoia, valley oak, or Monterey cypress. In fact, California may be over-endowed with emblematic trees that evoke some portion of this large and diverse state. There is the coast live oak, Santa Lucia fir, incense cedar, California nutmeg, bay laurel, and the weeping Brewer spruce. The pines alone reflect much of the state’s geographic diversity: Monterey, knobcone, sugar, Torrey, foothill, ponderosa, foxtail, pinyon, or bristlecone—to name only a few. Just the sight of them would cause many to heave a sigh of fond remembrance of places lived, loved, and enjoyed.

Close-up of a single inflorescence of California buckeye

California buckeye (Aesculus californica) recalls the foothills, valley margins, oak savannah and forest, and chaparral openings. It is not as massive or showy as some of the aforementioned trees, nor do you find many parks devoted specifically to its splendor, yet it is much loved. It is a true California endemic, not occurring elsewhere in the world! A tree of subtle elegance and evocative presence, it is lovely alone but is usually found in drifts or thickets filling winter-cool swales or rippling across rolling hillsides and bursting out of deep and craggy canyons.


Expanding buckeye buds in late winter

A Plant Out of Synch?

The California buckeye is a plant to enjoy throughout the year, although it may sometimes seem like the tree is unclear on which month it actually is. Leaping ahead by at least a season, the buckeye is actually finely tuned to California’s versions of a mediterranean climate. Why wait until April to leaf out when water is more likely to be available in February? Why hold onto your green leaves until October when it gets really parched in June?

The sequence of seasonal delights begins not long after the first fall rains. In the cool damp shadows, the glossy mahogany-colored seeds that litter the ground under their mother-tree begin to come to life. A large creamy finger-like projection creeps out of the seed and curves downward to impale the earth, in a way that might suggest the erotic. After penetrating the damp earth a secondary furl of growth occurs where the “finger” meets the soil. It produces a glossy rose pink or red stem, topped with tiny chartreuse green, fingered-foliage; this is the infant tree.

A sentimentalist may see this energetic nursery of incipient trees as a sign of re-growth, regeneration, and revival. But the harsh reality is that most will not survive long, especially as conditions and competition heat up in late spring. A surprising number of seedlings may germinate as albino- or golden-foliaged, all or in part, but these never survive in the wild.

Winter Delight

All this regenerative rustling in the underbrush is visually remarkable and life affirming, but it is really the winter branch display that shines. The silvery branches are especially dramatic when catching the winter light—bold simple branches sweeping up and out, so even the largest trees can resemble enormous shrubs from a distance. And it seems as if no two are exactly the same! Often those layers of branches will be encrusted with multicolored lichens, sometimes clothed in cascades of soft mosses, or hosting colonies of polypody fern (Polypodium spp.).

The winter branch display may be the sparkle, but the often irregular, gnarled and lumpy, multi-branched trunk provides the substance. Young trees may not be exceptional in this feature, but old buckeyes are worthy of veneration. Their stocky bases, often with branches crossing and fused together in odd patterns, are one-of-a-kind works of art. Some are reminiscent of the fanciful water-worn stones found in Chinese gardens, others of some woodcarver’s fantasy on prancing pachyderms.

Buckeye seed sprouting

An Early Spring

Almost as if to dispel the winter’s gloom and chilly dampness, the buckeye heralds the approaching spring long before any other tree, with its soft yellow green shoots of new foliage and stems bursting out of large, green, bronze-tinged bracts. The new leaves expand into a hand-like umbrella of leaflets.

And if you thought the silvery bare branches of winter were lovely, those same branches tipped with little tufts of lime-green foliage are even more enchanting. Whether in sun or swirling mists, or even sprinkled with snow, this is the plant for those of us addicted to season-denial. Can’t wait for spring? Plant a buckeye; it can’t wait either.

For the first two months of leaf, the tree is still quite open to the light and is typically a chartreuse-green color that compliments the rapidly greening grasses and forbs. As the season progresses, the leaves age to a deep mat green, which then contrasts handsomely with the tawny tones of the nearby ripening vegetation.

To signal a transition into summer, the trees shoot out long conical trusses of lightly fragrant, frilly white, azalea-like flowers. This happens rather suddenly; while the clusters are forming, they initially appear almost like branch-tip extensions. But as these projecting spikes open their dozens of buds, the tree becomes an exuberant mass of floral fireworks. The majority of trees have spikes that point upward and outward, more or less extending the direction of the branch, but occasional trees have flower clusters that curve downward, some dramatically so, giving the appearance of a floral waterfall.

If you bother to look closely, each flower is delightfully detailed: primarily white, usually with a darker “eye,” and often flushed with pale pink or yellow. A few trees have flowers with a pinkish cast, most of the color coming from the eye or the much deeper colored flower buds, which are sometimes rose pink. The massed flowers also produce long projecting filaments with orange stamens that, from a distance, give each cluster an outer haze of soft color, much like a bottlebrush. Most of the flowers in each cluster are male and, thus, incapable of producing seeds; only two or three at the tip are fertile and will produce the actual buckeyes. While in flower, the trees will be alive with masses of bees and other insects partaking of this floral feast.

Late summer’s dry leaves and ripening fruits

Summer Dormancy

Just as the trees finish flowering (sometimes before, especially in dry areas or dry seasons), the foliage will begin to show “autumnal” tints of soft yellow and tan, and the leaves begin to fall or wither. This can take a while, frequently all summer; a lot depends on where the plant is growing, on the air temperatures, wind, and underground water reserves. Although some leaves will drop, most remain hanging on the tree. Some buckeye trees may have all dried leaves, some will have green leaves near the branch tips and dried below, others will be almost all green or green with yellow highlights. Buckeyes often grow in association with poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum), whose leaves turn yellow, pink, or scarlet in early summer. Areas where the two grow together may appear like an autumn woodland, yet the summer is only beginning.

Summer is the buckeye’s least appreciated season. Someone unfamiliar with California’s dry season may wonder why all the buckeyes seem to be dying. But those crispy pendant leaves, varying from honey to graham cracker color, are seldom of concern to long time residents, as they become just part of the seasonal transition, their colors as much a part of the landscape as the dried grasses. Rather than a distraction, the foliage dries out in subdued harmony with the summer dry season, a natural manifestation of the baking heat. In this dry-leaf state, the California buckeye provides a pleasant contrast to other still-green trees nearby.

In a large natural landscape, buckeyes are just one element and the summer dried leaves, a visual detail. In a garden, the fastidious gardener may find this tardily deciduous quality to be an endless clean-up chore. Thus, the buckeye lends itself to a more casual gardening style, especially one where a natural leaf litter is valued.

Bare silvery stems sparkle in early winter

By late summer and fall, the trees again catch everyone’s attention as the branch tips droop with clusters of what look like large leathery pears. The sun begins to slant and the shadows spread—perfect for highlighting the branching and fruit. Soon the husks split open and those remarkable glossy seeds cover the ground again. Though thoroughly inedible (unless leached of their toxins, as the Native Californians did), there is something irresistible about this seed, looking as if it had been carved, lacquered, and polished; few can resist picking up one or more, often pocketing them to be brought home for a show-and-tell with family or friends. And then the rains come, and the year-long cycle begins anew.

Ohio Buckeye seed, via Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

Growing up, my brother and I spent most of our time outside on my grandparents’ farm. Climbing trees, swimming in the pond, playing hide and seek, riding on the hay wagon — it seemed like there were endless activities. We were never short on things to do or ways to pass time.

One year we decided to collect the buckeyes that dropped into the front yard. Some still had spiked, green husks on them protecting the seeds inside. Others had shed their outer layer to reveal a smooth, brown seed. We even found a couple seeds that were already beginning to root.

We collected and deposited our treasures in a green five-gallon bucket, before showing our dad the cream of the crop. We pulled the largest and shiniest and smoothest from the bucket, as he commented on their individual qualities. And then we decided to show him the ugliest seeds.

I remember saving the two with thick green tails in my coat pocket. As my dirty hand emerged, the excitement on his face was clear. We gave one to an uncle and saved the other.

My uncle’s seed rotted, but we managed to grow a seedling to plant outside the following spring — a feat that alluded my family so many times before. I remember the tiny tree grew about eight inches tall before my mom forgot to mow around it. I was so crushed over the months of hard work that were lost.

After that, my grandparents’ buckeye tree took a turn for the worst. It’s still standing, but it doesn’t produce fruit like it did during my childhood. There was never another fall with the bounty we had that year. However, I still wanted my parents to have a buckeye tree of their own.

My mom is on her third sapling, but this one is taller than me, so I’m confident it’ll be around for a while. Who knows, it may even live to reach maturity in the next few years and start producing fruit. Maybe my daughter will want to grow an Ohio Buckeye tree for our house.

Gathering seeds

The Ohio Buckeye is dispersed throughout the Midwest, growing mostly near streams and rivers in western Pennsylvania, Ohio, and southern Michigan. In The Buckeye State, finding a buckeye nut is considered good luck.

The tree is easily distinguished by its leaves and fruit. Each leaf has five leaflets. Each fruit contains one to three seeds, with a spiky golden brown to green husk encasing them.

The perfect time to collect seeds is during September and October when they begin dropping from mature trees. You can pick them up off the ground or harvest them by cutting them off the tree. The seeds near the base of the branches are preferred as they are more likely to be fertile.

Processing seeds

Once you’ve collected your seeds, you need to remove the husks if they haven’t already split open and released the nuts inside. You can accomplish this by storing them in a cool place until the capsules split open on their own. Then you can remove the shiny brown seeds, and choose to plant them outside in the fall or grow them inside over winter.

If you decide to grow them over winter, place them in a bag or bucket filled with moist (not wet) peat moss. Make sure each nut is completely surrounded, not touching the side of the container or the other nuts. Then place them in the refrigerator to stratify for 120 days at 41 F.

Once the stratification period is up and the seeds have had time to germinate, they can be planted indoors.

Planting

After you’ve moved the buckeyes from cold storage, plant them one to two inches deep in moist, well-drained soil and place them in a warm, sunny windowsill. Buckeyes can rot in compacted soils, so using a growing medium that promotes aeration is a good idea.

Seedlings should be ready to plant outside by mid-May after the last frost. However, before moving your seedlings outside, you want to transition them by placing them outside during the day, gradually introducing them to the elements.

When choosing a location to plant them, you want to consider the needs of the tree. Ohio Buckeyes prefer well-drained, moist, but not wet, soil in partially shaded environments. Choosing a spot near the outskirts of your yard where seedlings can benefit from early morning light and be protected from the hot afternoon sun works best.

Once you’ve chosen a location for your seedlings, you want to make sure you have enough room to space your holes 30 to 40 feet apart to give them room for growth. Next, dig your holes twice as large as the root balls of your seedlings. Before placing them into the holes, remove the remaining nut shells that are attached to their roots to help prevent animals from digging them up.

Once you’ve planted your seedlings, make sure the soil remains moist, but don’t overwater them. They shouldn’t be fertilized during their first year unless there is a problem, so sit back and watch them grow. With any luck, your seedlings will reach maturity and produce fruit of their own in about eight years.

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How to Grow a Buckeye Tree from Seeds

The buckeye tree, Aesculus glabra, isalso known as the Ohio buckeye, American buckeye or fetid buckeye and is commonly planted from buckeye seeds. It is the state tree of Ohio, but it is also found throughout the Mississippi Valley, Nashville Basin and scattered throughout the South. The buckeye tree grows up to 60 feet tall and 24 inches in diameter. Other varieties of buckeyes include the Texas buckeye, yellow buckeye, red buckeye and dwarf buckeye. Follow these steps to plant any of the buckeye tree from seeds.

Step 1- Collect and Prepare Buckeye Seeds

Buckeye seeds begin ripening in September, falling from the trees through early October. Collect seeds just after they drop from the tree. Remove the husk from around the seed (it should begin to open when its fully ripened). Until you are ready to plant store them where they won’t dry out.

Step 2 – Plant Buckeye Seeds

Plant seeds in the fall. The germination rate for buckeye seeds is 50% so plant a handful of seeds to make sure that at least one grows. Work up the soil before planting. Sow seeds in loose, fertile soil 3 inches deep.

Step 3 – Prepare for the Winter

Cover the buckeye seed with a couple inches of mulch to keep the moisture in and the soil in place. If you live in an area where there are a lot of squirrels, placing a wire mesh screen over the planting area will keep the seeds from being kidnapped. In the spring, after the ground thaws, remove the mulch.

Step 4 – Feeding and Watering Buckeye Seedlings

Until germination, keep the soil moist but not wet. After seeds have germinated, seedlings should receive about 1 inch of water a week. If you are getting plenty of rainfall, you may not have to water at all. Fertilize lightly with a 10-10-10 fertilizer once a month. To allow the seedling to harden off for winter, stop fertilizing in August. Full-grown buckeye trees can grow in partial shade to full sun. Buckeye seedlings grow best in partial shade. Too much sun in the summer can cause heat scorch to the leaves and stress the seedling so that it won’t grow as productively. Place a shade cloth over your seedlings in the summer to give it the shade it needs. A tree shelter can also be used when the tree is young to protect it from sun and animals that may want to eat it.

Step 5 – Transplanting Buckeye Saplings

If you would like to move your sapling, a good time to transplant your buckeye is in the spring of its second year. Continue watering and feeding it is fully established.

Enjoy the shade and beauty of a buckeye tree!

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