Related to the European horse chestnut, the Ohio Buckeye is a rounded deciduous tree with low, sweeping branches that arch upwards at the ends, and dense foliage. Growing in the open, it can reach 70 ft (21 m) in height, but as a native understory tree it’s often only half that. It is native to the Midwestern and Great Plains states, but in Canada, it’s found growing naturally only in SW Ontario on Walpole Island in Lake St. Clair. It is as a planted ornamental that it appears elsewhere.
One of the first trees to leaf out in the spring, the Ohio Buckeye has large, compound leaves, with 5-7 pointed leaflets radiating outward from the end of a central stalk; each leaflet has a drawn-out, pointed tip. Because it’s prone to scorching, discolouration, and leaf diseases, by mid-summer the tree tends to have a fall-like appearance. It prefers evenly moist, well-drained sites with a more alkaline pH, and partial shade allowing some sun. In spring, it produces showy yellow-green flowers with pollen-bearing stamens that extend far beyond the petals. Its fruit can occur singly or in clusters – one to three seeds (or nuts) enclosed in a spiny, golden-brown husk. In fact, the name “buckeye” came from the circular lighter “eye” on the glossy brown nut that resembles the eye of a buck (male deer).
Early Native Americans roasted, peeled and mashed the buckeye’s nut into a nutritional meal. Raw shoots and seeds are poisonous to humans and most domestic livestock, but squirrels eat the twig’s inner pith that is very sweet. Easy to carve and whittle but difficult to split, its lightweight wood has been used to make prosthetic limbs. Since Colonial times, people carried buckeye nuts in their pockets to attract good luck. In the urban environment, the Ohio Buckeye is planted as an ornamental in gardens, parks, and along streets.
Image Source: Paul Wray, Iowa State University