Showy red buds opening into flowers signal the season for a favorite native that is coming into bloom this week: red buckeye (Aesculus pavia). The tubular flowers are borne in panicles at the tips of the branches. (A panicle is a type of inflorescence that has a main stalk with branched side stems.) Each panicle is 4 to 8 inches long in bloom, and the individual flowers are about 1½ inches long. The flowers are showy for a couple weeks from mid spring to early summer. The flowers are very attractive to hummingbirds.
Whether you call it a small tree or a large shrub, red buckeye is a handsome ornamental that should be grown more often. Like others of its kind, my plant is multi-stemmed clump with an overall rounded habit. If the books are correct, mine still has a bit of growing to do. Mature plants range from 10 to 25 feet in gardens and spread from 10 to about 20 feet. Currently, mine is about 8 or 9 feet tall and wide. The champion listed in the National Register of Big Trees was 48 feet tall and 38 feet wide in 2009.
Foliage is dark green and the plants don’t exhibit any fall color worth mentioning. However, the leaves emerge early and are fully extended by the time the red flowers appear. This puts red buckeye well ahead of many other deciduous trees, including willow oaks and red maples. Each leaf has five to seven leaves arranged in a palmate fashion, like the fingers on a hand. Individual leaflets are 3 to 6 inches long. The flowers are followed by round, brown nuts that are eaten by various mammals.
Why So Rare?
This eastern U.S. native isn’t as common in cultivation as you might expect. A major reason for this is that the plants are relatively slow growing, since they concentrate on producing deep tap roots during their first few years of growth. As a result, red buckeyes frequently get passed over by nursery owners looking for inventory that will grow into salable size more quickly. The carrotlike tap roots also mean the plants demand a large pot in relation to a relatively small amount of topgrowth—another characteristic that keeps nursery goers from snapping them up.
Red buckeye is easy from seed, and seedlings have appeared around my main plant. Simply pot up the nuts in fall or dig the seedlings in early spring. If you’re transplanting, be sure to dig deep. Seedlings will survive if you cut off part of the taproot, but the more of it you get the better your chances.
In the Garden
Give red buckeyes a site in full sun to partial shade. They tolerate shade, but need at least 3 to 4 hours of sun per day in order to bloom well. Give them average to rich soil that is moist but well drained. Transplant in late winter to early spring, and prepare to be patient. Give plants a couple of years to get established and they’ll reward you with an annual show.
Red buckeye makes a handsome specimen plant, either alone in a lawn or underplanted with ground covers. Also try using it as a focal point in a shrub border or as an accent near a patio, so you can sit and enjoy the hummingbirds that visit.