The Water-Wise Buckeye

Buckeye, dormant (1-20-15)            “That tree is dead”, said the visitor during his first visit to the Granada Native Garden one day in August.                                                                                                              “No, actually it isn’t” replied Jim, the Worker Bee who happened to be doing garden maintenance that day.  “It’s only dormant, because it’s a buckeye, and they lose their leaves during the summer in order to save water.  It‘ll grow a new crop of leaves in the spring, and be good as new.  We say it’s aestivating, the opposite of hibernating.”                           “That don’t look like no buckeye we used to have back in Ohio.  You know, Ohio is the Buckeye State.”                                                                                                                     “I know what you mean” agreed Jim.  “We had a big one near my home in Pennsylvania, but we called them horse chestnuts, and I liked to collect the pretty nuts when I was a kid.  This one is the western variety, the California buckeye, but some people call it a horse chestnut too.  I’m not sure why they are called horse chestnuts, because the seeds are poisonous to most mammals, including humans.  But I understand that the California ground squirrel can eat them, probably because the trees and the squirrels evolved together in California.”

Buckeye with "candles" in April

Buckeye with “candles” in April

A buckeye panicle

A buckeye panicle


Shortly after the buckeye begins leafing out in late winter or early spring, the future blossoms, resembling candles, form in abundance at the tips of the new growth.  In a matter of a few weeks, the candles burst into clusters (panicles) of sweet-scented, white to pale pink flowers.  Each panicle consists of numerous individual blossoms, but only one or two of them will eventually mature into a buckeye fruit, which contains the seed of a potential new tree.  (You may click on a photo to enlarge it and get a closer view.)

Aesculus, full bloom, 5-13-13

Buckeye in full bloom

 The Buckeye in the Home Garden – Pluses and Minuses                                                       Not everyone appreciates the striking silvery architecture of the dormant California buckeye (Aesculus californica), if they expect everything in their garden to be lush and verdant in the summer.  Its size (15-30 or more feet), shape (sometimes single-trunked, sometimes multi-trunked) and summer-deciduous habit (it loses its leaves in the summer) does require careful placement in a home garden (altho a source of summer water will keep the leaves green).  One author describes its form as “best in sun, where trees develop into a living sculpture of multiple or low-branching trunks, symmetrically out- stretched branches, and a delicate tracery of small branchlets.”   The short-lived display of blossoms are sure to attract attention, followed by the unusual drooping fruits containing the mahogany-colored seeds.                                                                                              FruitsFruits 2           The seeds are about the size of a golf ball and are sure to be noticed when they fall to the ground in the autumn.  But because they are poisonous to mammals, they could endanger a dog who might be tempted to chew on one.  Native bees and butterflies, who have co-evolved with the buckeye over the centuries, are readily attracted to the buckeye blossoms and are not harmed by the toxin in the pollen and nectar.  However, it is of concern to some gardeners that the blossoms are toxic to our non-native honeybees, who have not developed resistance to the toxin.                                                       Painted ladyTiger swallowtail







But it might be fun and instructive for a child to plant one or more of the seeds and watch it grow.  The tree is a fast grower – it might achieve as much as 1-2 feet in a year.  Plant the brown seed half-buried in a pot of damp but well-drained soil, or directly in the ground, with the light spot on the seed facing downward so that the spot remains covered with soil – the root will sprout from this area.  Make sure the soil stays damp, but not soggy.  The chances are excellent that it will sprout when the weather starts to warm.  It needs a little water during the first year or two of growth.  Like so many native California plants adapted to drought conditions, it develops a long tap root to reach water deep-down.  After that first year or two, it should need no summer water at all, but it will characteristically lose its leaves in the summer unless it is given a little water once a month or so.

A Novel Way to Catch Fish!                                                                                                         The seeds of the buckeye, as well as several other plant varieties, contain chemi- cals called saponins.  A characteristic of this class of chemicals is that they create a foamy, soapy mixture when shaken with water.  They are also bitter to taste, and toxic to most animals, which protects plants containing them from being eaten and even protects them from microbes and fungi.                                                                                                        Nonetheless, many Native American tribes learned to use this characteristic to catch fish.  They would pulverize the seeds and roots, shake them with water to create a foam, and add the suds to a stream where fish were plentiful.  This would kill or stupify the fish, which would float to the surface and could be easily gathered up.  Some tribes used other plants, such as the soap lily (Chlorogalum), in the same way.                                                  While saponins are poisonous to humans too, in addition to being bitter, they reportedly are poorly absorbed by the human body (but children are more vulnerable).  Thus buckeye seeds could be used as food by Native Americans, especially when other food sources were scarce.  But the seeds had to be crushed and rinsed in water for up to three days to leach out the saponins.  The flour made from the treated seeds could then be used in cakes, porridge or soup (similar to the way holly-leafed cherry seeds were used; see the article on Prunus ilicifolia in the October, 2015 issue of the Granada Native Garden Newsletter).                                                                                                                                     Lest any part of a valuable plant go to waste, Native Americans also used the wood of the buckeye for firemaking drills and bows for hunting small game, and as fuel for fires.  Medicinally, one tribe even made a tea out of the fruit for bathing hemorrhoids, or mashed the fruit and mixed it with kidney fat for the same purpose.  The Pomo Indians made a poultice from the bark and applied it to a snakebite.

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The GNG Is a Destination!                          Rex and Jenny Mananquil chose the Granada Native Garden as the site of their annual family photo, with almost-2-year old Zara as the centerpiece (in addition to the Garden itself).  The photo was taken by local photographer Dylan Douglas, but Rex himself is a professional photographer whose work is well known both in the Bay Area and in southern California.  Google “photography by Rex” to get to his website.


Welcome Dean to the Granada Native Garden!                                                        Dean                 Dean has joined the GNG Worker Bees and is now sharing his wealth of gardening experience with the GNG.  Currently he has offered to tackle the Murrieta Blvd. approach to the Garden, which was becoming more unsightly with each passing day.  It’s a challenging task!


Native Plants at Alden Lane Nursery Have Been Moved                                                                                                          If you are looking for the display of native California plants at Alden Lane Nursery and can’t find them, don’t panic!  They have been moved to the rear of the nursery, where I am told there will be a bit more shade for plants that need it.ALN CreditGuided Tours of the Granada Native Garden Are Available!                                                     Are you interested in seeing some of the plants that are described in this Newsletter or in past issues?  One or more staff of the GNG are routinely on duty at the Garden on Mondays and Thursdays, roughly between 10:00 AM and 12:00 noon.  But it isn’t very hard to arrange a guided visit at other times.  If you are interested in scheduling a visit, just email Jim at .  Or if you have any questions or inquiries, please email Jim at the same address!

Stumpy'sQuote du Jour                                                                                                                               “A lot of people still think native plants are dull and don’t really do anything, so we want to get them here to the garden to understand that everything they see is a California native plant, that they’re really quite lovely and are wonderful additions to any garden environment.”                                                                                                                                   Bart O’Brien, garden manager at the Regional Parks Botanic Garden in Tilden Park

2 thoughts on “The Water-Wise Buckeye

  1. Hi Jim, your email Blog is one I look forward to reading and learning something new. Thanks!

    Blessings from Louann!


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