What a welcome sight the red buckeye (Aesculus pavia) is in a spring season of so many colorless, wind-pollinated trees and shrubs.
The common, cheerful plants grow nearly statewide, leafing out well before the spring starting gun is fired and bearing panicles of showy red flowers to attract the birds, hummingbirds and bumblebees.
This old red buckeye tree is worth a visit; it grows directly across the road from the parking lot of the Clinton School on East 3rd Street in Little Rock.
Red buckeyes typically live as understory shrubs, but ambitious or lucky plants can grow 25-30 feet high. The current state champion, from Ashdown in Little River County, measures 23 feet high with a trunk diameter of more than 8 inches.
The buckeye genus comprises about a dozen species of Northern Hemisphere trees and shrubs, almost evenly split between the New World and the Old.
Seven species occur in North America: 1 in California and 5 in the East, with 2 in Arkansas—Ohio buckeye with yellow flowers is restricted here to the Ouachita and Ozark Highlands. Add to those the exotic horse-chestnut of Eurasia, Aesculus hippocastanum, which sporadically escapes cultivation in both the East and Pacific Northwest.
As spectacular as the flowers are, the buckeye takes its name from the large and strikingly colored seeds, with dark seed coat and pale placental scar. The British call them conkers. In America, they’re carried as good luck charms. However, anecdotal evidence from back in my teaching days suggests that their powers are limited—they were used instead of studying by a lot of my students on Botany and Regional Flora test days, but to no apparent effect.
Written by Eric Sundell