Aesculus is Latin for “oak with edible acorns” and is also thought to be an ancient European name for nut bearing trees; pavia is in honor of Peter Paaw (Petrus Pavius) a 17th century Dutch botanist.
Red buckeye is named for the color of the flowers and the similarity of the seed to a deer or buck’s eye.
NATIVE RANGE AND HABITAT
Red buckeye ranges from Virginia to Florida, through eastern Texas and north to Illinois. It grows under the shade of taller trees in rich woodland areas. In Kentucky, red buckeye occurs in mesic (moist) to wet woods in the western lowland region (Mississippi Embankment or Coastal Plain).
Red buckeye is protected in Kentucky; it is listed as threatened on the state’s Endangered, Threatened and Species of Concern Plants list monitored by the Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission.
Growth Habit and Form
Red buckeye varies in shape from a spreading shrub-like plant to a small rounded tree with a dense crown. This deciduous plant rarely exceeds 20 feet in height.
Buckeyes are one of the first trees to leaf out in the spring. The leaves of red buckeye are opposite and palmately compound with 5(7) lustrous dark green leaflets. Autumn leaf color is not ornamental; leaves drop early in fall. As a defense mechanism against hungry browsers searching for the first green leaves in spring, buckeye leaves are toxic when ingested.
The bright crimson, tubular flowers appear between April and May in 4 to 8 inch tall, upright clusters. Hummingbirds pollinate the flowers.
Fruit and Seeds
Pear-shaped fruits ripen in late summer to early fall and enclose a single or pair of glossy seeds or “buckeyes”. Seeds are poisonous to humans and livestock.
The grayish-brown bark is smooth on young trees and broken into plates on older trees.
Wild and Cultivated Varieties
‘Atrosanquinea’ has deeper red flowers. ‘Humilis’ is a low or even prostrate form with red flowers in small panicles. Aesculus pavia var. flavescens have yellow, campanulate flowers.
Red buckeye is an attractive small tree or large shrub. The tree is best used as a specimen or in shrub borders. Red buckeye is planted for the showy, red spring flowers. It is somewhat uncommon in the nursery trade.
Hardy in USDA Zones 4 to 8.
Cultivation and Propagation Information
Best growth is in moist, well-drained soils. Plants thrive in heavy shade but become denser in full sun. Plants growing in sunny areas should be mulched and watered as necessary to maintain a cool, moist root zone. Propagate this species from cold, moist stratified seed.
Diseases and Insects
None serious. May contract blotch.
Red buckeye flowers are used as a nectar source by ruby-throated hummingbirds.
Maintenance Practices No special tending if recommended habitat requirements are met. Toxicity characteristics should be considered to minimize risk to children and pets
TRADITIONAL AND MODERN USES
Native Americans crushed buckeye seeds and roots and cast them into streams and ponds to stun fish for easy catching and carried the seeds for good luck. Native American Cherokee used the ground seeds for a variety of medicines.
Red buckeye was introduced into cultivation in 1711. It is used as an ornamental tree or shrub in urban landscapes.