While most spring flowering trees cover themselves in white or pastel blossoms, scarlet buckeye, also known as firecracker plant, erupts in long clusters of deep throated, scarlet flowers. Its flowers open in time to welcome returning hummingbirds and emerging bees with rich nectar. It supports a wide range of pollinators, including early butterflies.
Scarlet buckeye is native along the southern North Carolina coast south to Florida and then west along the Gulf Coast to Texas. It has been creeping north, naturalizing in wider areas in recent years, and may be found growing as far north and west as Illinois.
A stunningly beautiful small tree in spring, every part of the plant is highly poisonous if eaten by most mammals. Only squirrels eat its large, chestnut like seeds, and so they help the tree spread as they bury the seeds when they ripen in the fall.
There are at least five species of Aesculus in North America, all with distinctive large palmate leaves, showy flowers and large nut-like seeds. Aesculus flava, the yellow buckeye, native to the Eastern United States, is hardy in Zones 3-8 and blooms with yellow flowers. It grows into a larger tree to 60’ and is also poisonous.
Aesculus glabra, the Ohio buckeye, grows to around 40’ and also has yellow flowers. It is hardy in Zones 3-7, native to the central United States, and isn’t as poisonous as the scarlet buckeye. Aesculus parviflora, the bottlebrush buckeye, is more of a shrub than a tree, growing to only around 12’ high but spreading to 15’ on suckering stems. Its white flowers have very long stamens, giving each stem of flowers a ‘brushy’ look. Hummingbirds and swallowtail butterflies are attracted to this extraordinary, but highly poisonous shrub, native to the Southeastern United States.
Finally, there is the California buckeye, Aesculus californica, which is a deciduous shrub or small tree to 12”. Its leaves emerge in spring and then drop during summer drought. White to pinkish clusters of flowers emerge in May and June, supporting hummingbirds, butterflies, and other pollinating insects.
All of these Aesculus trees are highly poisonous if ingested, and so resistant to grazing. But they are also very attractive, support wildlife, and are relatively easy to grow. You’ll find a number of named selections and cultivars on the market that make the most of their best features, including a yellow flowered Aesculus pavia var. flavens They belong to the same Sapindaceae family of trees as maples.
We had a seedling scarlet buckeye large enough to bloom for a year or two before it was flattened when a large oak fell on it during a storm. I was so disappointed. But the little buckeye survived, growing again from its roots, and nearly 10 years later it is nearly 10’ tall. A. pavia will eventually grow to around 25’ tall and 20’ wide. Allow it to develop multiple trunks, or train it to a single stem.
Scarlet buckeye grows well in part sun to partial shade in well-drained, neutral (pH 6-8) soil. They are an excellent choice for an understory tree. And when they bloom in spring, covered in hundreds and hundreds of flowers, a scarlet buckeye will beg you to stop what you’re doing to simply admire it for a while. Sit quietly and enjoy the parade of hummingbirds and insects visiting its flowers.
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Oh, that really is pretty with red bloom. California buckeye is an odd one to work with in refined gardens. It is pretty for most of the time in the wild, and the bloom is nicely but mildly fragrant, but then it looks shabby by the end of summer. In landscapes, the form is appealing while bare through winter and foliated in spring, but then seems to be dead through the end of summer. A few live in our landscapes, but no more are allowed to develop. Even the mature specimens are subordinated to other more desirable trees. As much as I like them, I dislike how others perceive them to be dead.
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