Buckeye blossoms signal its spring

Published March 12, 2007

Warm sunny weather lures gardeners outside to catch up on their long list of springtime chores. The pruning of dormant, deciduous shrubs and trees is done. The lawn is raked and beginning to green up. The selective pre-emergent herbicide I broadcast over my zoysia lawn in February is killing newly sprouting seedlings. Azaleas, redbuds and dogwoods herald spring while nurseries offer a riot of colorful annuals grown in South Florida.

In my garden the blue-eyed grass, a native iris, has started to bloom and red salvia seedlings have their first buds - surely a sign of spring.

An excellent small understory tree for Zones 4 to 9 is red buckeye, Aesculus pavia. It ranges from Central Florida north to Virginia and west as far as east Texas. The buds have been swelling for weeks and will erupt in flowers in the next few weeks.

Showy red, tubular flowers, 1.5-inches-long, cluster on an erect stem in 8- to 10-inch panicles at the tips of branches. Their sweet nectar lures butterflies and hummingbirds.

This Florida native blooms early in life, in its third or fourth year when just a few feet tall. Life span is about 50 years. A mature tree rarely reaches 30 feet high.

Red buckeye grows naturally on hammocks, stream sides and moist woodlands underlain with calcium lime rock, which is alkaline. However, buckeye is adaptable to drier, acidic soils and does well in the sandhills - provided you add organic compost to the bed to mimic rich woodland soil.

It naturally prefers shade and enjoys weekly irrigation once established. Those grown in sunnier locations become more densely branched but need more water, preferably from a drip or micro irrigation system.

An excellent free booklet on all aspects of drip irrigation by DIG Irrigation is available at Home Depot in the plumbing aisle. Basic guidelines are in a pamphlet from Southwest Florida Water Management District, toll-free at 1-800-432-1476, and from Florida Yards and Neighborhoods at the Extension Service, 527-5700.

Red buckeye has interesting compound leaves with five palmate parts. Arranged opposite each other along the branches, leaves are coarse, toothed along the edges and the size of a hand. New leaves have a copper tinge.

The single-trunked tree or multistemmed, clump-forming shrub is deciduous so it sheds its leaves in early fall. The bark is gray-brown and warty.

Enclosed in a light brown capsule are two or three red-brown seeds, an inch or more wide. Shed naturally in the fall, these can be used in crafts, children's games and decorations.

They are somewhat distasteful and toxic to humans, but wildlife in my backyard habitat relish this food source. Pets seem to know when a plant is toxic so they rarely try more than one nibble. Consumption may cause nausea, vomiting and tummy ache.

As with most native plants, red buckeye is virtually pest-free, provides wildlife benefits, is very hardy yet tolerates our hot wet summers provided the site is well-drained. Watch for the bright red flowers to signal the start of spring.

Editor's note: This weekly article is provided by Jane Weber, professional gardener, grower, consultant, designer and environmentalist. Visit her Certified Florida Yard and Backyard Wildlife Habitat, 5019 W Stargazer Lane, Dunnellon. Call (352) 465-0649.