Archived Mountain Voices

A prolific year for buckeye productions

mtn voicesA large buckeye tree overhangs and supports the swinging gate leading into our property. Thereby, we have the opportunity to observe buckeye in all seasons. The year 2014 is a big one for buckeye seed production — the most prolific I’ve ever observed.  


By September, the foliage is turning clear yellow, and the tree’s starting to drop its large greenish-yellow seedpods. As these dry, the tri-parted husks open revealing the 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 their pocket as a good luck charm or to ward off rheumatism.  

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• If the fish aren’t biting, rub your buckeye seed, spit on your bait, and hang on.  

• Last week during the UNC versus ECU game, I had 20 buckeyes arranged in a circle around my Sirius XM radio, which helped the Tar Heels hold ECU to 70 points.  

Now we come to the burning question of the day. Why do squirrels eat only half of a buckeye and leave the rest? Or do they?

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 including inflammation of the mucous membranes, vomiting, twitching and paralysis.  

In the days before the coming of the national park in the Smokies, stock was driven from those areas where buckeye grew prior to the dropping of the fruit.

When my wife first let her horse loose in the pasture back in the mid-1970s, he promptly chowed down on all the buckeye seeds around the gate, came down with a case of the “wobbles” and toppled on his side in the grass. He was OK the next morning but no longer eats buckeye.

I was at a civic function last week. Having several buckeyes in my pocket, I handed them to three or four local fellows who get out in the woods a lot. Each made the observation that squirrels eat only half of a buckeye because they can tell which end is poisonous. 

Is that factual? I have certainly observed gray squirrels eating or carrying buckeyes. And I have seen partially eaten buckeyes lying on the ground. But I can’t find anything in the written literature either way. And the commentary on the Internet doesn’t really settle the matter either: 

• “The idea that one half of a buckeye is poisonous is absolutely false,” declared a commentator on

• “There is a belief by some that only half the buckeye is poisonous, and that only squirrels know which half that might be in a particular nut,” declared a commentator in New World Witchery.

• “Squirrels will often eat a part of the nut but will leave the rest. The truth is that squirrels feel the effects of the toxin in the nut that is called aesculin. After eating “so much” (about half), the squirrels know when it is time to stop eating,” declared a commentator in West Virginia Plant Society Newsletter.

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..      

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