In winter, you can spot a buckeye by the large upward-pointing shiny-brown end buds, larger than the buds on almost any other hardwood. In spring, these buds produce the opposite palmately compound leaves that are the prime identification mark for the tree.
Look for five leaflets radiating from the tip of a single stem, giving the appearance of a hand with fingers. The numerous saplings that spring up around a parent tree from seeds or root sprouts display these distinctive palmate leaves as soon as they are a foot or so high.
Each May, large showy flower clusters composed of bright yellow petals overhang our gateway. By late June, the leaves turn a rosy salmon color. By mid-September, the foliage is clear yellow, and the tree’s starting to drop its large greenish-yellow seedpods. As these dry, the tri-parted husks open revealing three beautifully crafted mahogany-colored seeds from which the tree’s name derives.
On each lustrous “buck’s eye,” there’s a round gray scar called the “hilum,” where the seed was attached inside the husk. Nourishment was fed to the seed via this area. Its resemblance to the pupil of an eye is uncanny, even down to the concentric rings inside each hilum.
These seeds are as pleasing to hold as they are to behold. A flattened place adjacent to the “pupil” allows a person’s thumb to settle on it just so. Keep one in your pocket as a good luck charm or talisman.
If the fish aren’t biting, rub your buckeye seed, spit on your bait, and hang on.
When the home team is behind and driving for the winning score in the last seconds, place your thumb on that flattened area, hold it there, and see what happens.
But don’t get excited and eat the thing. Buckeye contains a glycoside that when combined with moisture — as in your stomach — produces a poisonous derivative. Pigs, horses, sheep, and children have been poisoned by them, with symptoms of inflammation of the mucous membranes, vomiting, twitching, and paralysis.
The Cherokee did once eat quantities of buckeye “meat” after first roasting the nuts, mashing the pulp, and leaching the meal with water for several days. They also threw crushed raw buckeye into the deep, slow-flowing pools of streams where fish were congregated in fall so as to bring the stunned quarry to the surface for gathering. And they continue to favor the soft, white wood of the tree for carving.
There are four native species of buckeye in the southeastern United States: Ohio, red, painted, and yellow buckeyes.
Horse-chestnut, a native of Asia, was introduced into this country from Europe as an ornamental shade tree.
Here in Western North Carolina there are two native species: painted buckeye (Aesculus sylvatica), a shrub that occasionally becomes a small tree, is rarely encountered; and yellow buckeye (A. flava, formerly designated A. octandra), our common species.
In Trees, Shrubs, and Woody Vines of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (1964), naturalist Arthur Stupka reported a giant buckeye tree 15-feet, 11-inches in circumference growing near Trillium Gap in the Smokies. Average trees are about 60 feet tall and 3 feet in diameter. They are encountered from the lowest altitudes to over 6,000-feet but flourish in the rich cove hardwoods of the middle elevations.