LSU AgCenter Horticulturist
(03/13/20) Red buckeye (Aesculus pavia) is a medium-sized deciduous tree-like shrub in the horse chestnut family. It can be found growing throughout the southeastern United States in its native habitat. Trees are found from Virginia to Florida to Texas and are widely distributed throughout the Gulf South, growing along streams and as an understory tree in forests.
They are most striking this time of year in the early spring when they have put on their unique palmate, dark glossy leaves. They are also in bloom along with many other woodland wildflowers such as redbuds, dogwoods and two-winged silverbells.
Red buckeyes produce brilliant red flowers in upright clusters of dark red tubular flowers. The gorgeous flowers last several weeks in spring, and they attract hummingbirds and butterflies because of their nectar. The rest of the plant is poisonous to birds and other mammals, including humans.
The plant earned its name for its large, nut-like seed that is shiny and dark brown with a light-colored spot that is said to resemble a deer’s eye. The seed is considered a good luck charm, even though it is highly poisonous. Squirrels will eat them, which I learned the hard way when trying to start plants from seed outdoors this winter.
The seeds contain a lot of protein, and they were used by Native Americans as a food source after boiling the seeds to remove the deadly toxins. They also crushed the seeds and used the powder to stun fish for an easy catch. School children used to carry them in their pockets for good luck.
The trees are very easily propagated by seed. Seeds will mature and can be planted in early autumn. You can start seeds in pots and then transplant the seedlings in late winter or early spring to the landscape. They have a slow to moderate growth rate. Typically growing to 25 feet by 15 feet on average in the wild, they can grow as tall as 30 to 40 feet.
Leaves are unique, growing opposite in a palmate form and are 3 to 6 inches long. The leaves emerge early in spring and are a dark glossy green from spring until late summer, when they are among some of the first leaves to fall.
It is a pioneer species on clear-cut sites and is tolerant of a wide range of soils from moist to dry. Red buckeye grows in USDA hardiness zones 6-9 in slightly alkaline to acidic soils but prefers rich, well-drained soil. Generally an easy-to-care-for plant, it has few to no pests. It can tolerate some drought and grows well in full sun to shade.
Because it is tolerant of shade, the buckeye tree makes a great selection as a flowering understory shrub or small tree. Pair it with another native such as American beautyberry, and you have the makings of a gorgeous display for shady areas that provide ecosystem services for wildlife. It also makes for a good accent plant for large shaded areas.
Red buckeye trees offer a modest fall color change and are among the first to drop leaves in late summer to early autumn. This may mislead folks to think the tree is in drought mode. But it makes for a great defense against drought in the late summer with high temperatures and little rain.
The wood of the buckeye is pale and light, and has been used for making paper and other novelty items. Seven species of buckeye are native to the United States, mostly found in the eastern half of the country. According to the Arbor Day Foundation, buckeye made the nomination short list for America’s national tree.
You will find it difficult to find buckeyes in retail nurseries. However, you can order trees online or just head out to the forest in autumn and harvest seeds for yourself. The ones I have been able to get my hands on are from friends with common interest in native species and have an appreciation for this tree.
If you grow the trees from seed, they are easily propagated. But protect the seeds from squirrels, and keep children and pets away. The buckeye will make a gorgeous understory plant with beautiful red flowers and grow well with native resilience.
A red buckeye in the shrub form grows on the LSU campus in Baton Rouge. Photo by Heather Kirk-Ballard/LSU AgCenter
Red flowers grow on spikes on a buckeye shrub. Photo by Heather Kirk-Ballard/LSU AgCenter
Red buckeye seeds are thought to resemble deer eyes, hence the name buckeye. Photo by Andrew Writer licensed under CC BY 2.0