Plants I love that Deer Ignore: Scarlet Buckeye

All parts of the Red Buckeye tree, Aesculus pavia, are poisonous. Ours have never been bothered by deer, though pollinators love them.

Scarlet Buckeye should be called ‘The Hummingbird Tree” because it serves as a magnet for hungry hummingbirds looking for a satisfying meal after their long migration.  Butterflies and other pollinators find it, too.  Clusters of deep, tubular red flowers arise on every branch making the entire tree appear as a torch from a distance.  In a season when so many shrubs and trees clothe themselves in soft pastel shades, the red buckeye shines as a focal point.

Scarlet Buckeye, Aesculus pavia, also known as “Firecracker Plant,” grows in Zone 4-8 as a small deciduous tree to 20’ tall and wide.  It may also be grown as a multi-stemmed shrub.  A close relation to the Ohio buckeye or horse chestnut, and the yellow buckeye, it is known for its large, distinctive ‘buckeye’ seeds.  Squirrels prize these nuts, which ripen in October in our area.  Seedlings trees frequently emerge from seeds buried and forgotten by squirrels.

Scarlet buckeye nuts ripen in October

Scarlet buckeye has broad, palmately compound green leaves that grow to around 8” long, which turn red in fall.  This is one of the earliest trees to drop its leaves each autumn.  Emerging buds are large, distinctive, and very attractive in the spring. 

These small native trees thrive as understory trees in partial shade to full sun.  They do best in partial, bright shade and moist, neutral to acidic soil.  Trees can take occasionally wet soil but also prove drought tolerant once established.  Use this tree in rain gardens, along waterways, or in low spots where water collects to help manage standing water and return it to the atmosphere.

As beautiful as this tree may be in bloom, every part of it is highly poisonous if ingested.  This is why deer largely ignore it.  There is no problem with touching or working with this plant. It is a neat, attractive tree in all seasons, and is easy to maintain.  Plant scarlet buckeye with confidence, knowing you have invested in a beautiful, wildlife friendly tree that will delight you for many years to come.

Scarlet buckeye buds open in late March or early April

You might enjoy more Plants I Love That Deer Ignore.

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  1. Except for the floral color, that resembles the native buckeye. I find the large seeds of exotic buckeyes to be surprising, because the only exotic buckeyes that I ever met were horse chestnut, which generate no seed here.

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    • I wonder why no seed there? I guess it would have to have a pollinator nearby. These are really pretty and stay in bloom for a long time. They weren’t originally native to our area, but migrated northwards from the Carolinas as the climate has warmed. It is a good tree. Hope you’re well and haven’t had problems from the recent crazy weather- e

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      • The horse chestnuts are fruitless hybrids, which is nice for street trees. Those big seeds would be a problem on sidewalks. The native buckeye is not so useful in landscapes because it is twice deciduous. It defoliates during the warmest weather of summer, and then refoliates again for autumn before defoliating again for winter.

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      • Tony, I really hope to have the opportunity to live on the West Coast at some point and learn about your very interesting trees and shrubs. Twice deciduous! What a thrill to watch the leaves emerge twice in a year! I really love the fat buds on our buckeye and the beauty of those leaves emerging. Ours are a bit pinkish as they unfold. There is a species back east known as the ‘horse chestnut,’ A. glabra, that produces seeds. So the fruitless hybrid you have in CA might be a hybrid with that tree as a parent. Just fascinating!

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      • Now that you mention it, I can not remember who the parents of the horse chestnut are.
        Oh, Aesculus X carnea is a hybrid of Aesculus hippocastanum and Aesculus pavia, so it is related to scarlet buckeye. (I Googled it.) I have not seen one in many years, but those that I remember were quite appealing with very complaisant roots as street trees. (I remember that because that is what I inspected them for.) California buckeye is not so appealing within refined landscapes. I happen to like those that grow wild here. However, clients did not like them in landscapes because they looked dead in the middle of summer. Landscape designers like to incorporate them into landscapes merely so that they can brag about doing so.

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      • You always make me chuckle, Tony. Yes, a lot of designers are marketing themselves and claiming bragging rights for using native plants, even when those plants don’t function well in refined, residential landscapes. By the time you learn that you have an aggressive, or undesirable plant it is often too late to fully eradicate it. All but one of my ‘aggressive’ plants was even given to me as a gift by a friend, or came with the birds and the breeze. The only one I paid for was the Akebia, which is pretty but terribly greedy. I wouldn’t be happy to pay a landscaper to plant a tree in my yard only to learn later that it stands naked through much of the year- even in the summer, when I expected to enjoy its shade. I have found 2 new seedling buckeye trees volunteered in my yard this week, but the seeds I sowed in pots and tended all winter haven’t broken soil. There is a lesson in there somewhere… Take care, e

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  2. I experience with buckeye deer resistance katches yours—it’s one of the few ornamentals I’ll plant outside our deer fence. Squirrels sometimes damage the flowers of my Aesculus pavia, but they seem to prefer the native A. sylvatica. It can be disheartening to come home to find a beautiful floral display replaced by broken branches and shredded blooms. I’d guess they are looking for nectar and discourage them by spraying with deer/rabbit repellant.

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    • How interesting. We’ve not seen squirrels on the A. pavia yet- perhaps because it is a relatively small tree still. They do enjoy its nuts in the fall and bury them in the most interesting spots! We haven’t had any broken branches or ruined flowers, knock on wood! It is another highly poisonous tree, of course, which helps protect it from the grazers.


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