Every spring the Red Buckeye Aesculus pavia brings me back into the gardening mode and has me excited about the coming growing season. One of the first plants to bud in my southern landscape, red buckeye takes her time leafing out. With large, bronze green buds and new foliage, it is a spectacular sight. The color is almost metallic. Once this plant leafs out I am ready for spring to get underway in full.
Red buckeye is usually a single stemmed, open small tree hardy from zones 5-8 (USDA Plant Profile). They are typically at 8′-10′ ft but I have seen colonies as tall as 30′. It can be grown as a multi stemmed shrub or single trunk tree but tends to form a small clump when cultivated.
In early spring from April to May the true drama begins when very showy, erect, 4-10” long panicles of bright red tubular flowers appear. The flowers form on the ends of the branch and are held above attractive 5″-10″ leaves. The bright red-orange color of the flowers is highly visible and adds an eye-catching spot to any landscape. Hummingbirds are supposed to be attracted to the blooms but I have found this plant is in flower a bit earlier than they return. However it is considered a food source for migration.
From late spring to early summer red buckeye produces beautiful palmately compound, shiny, dark green leaves. The foliage is a favorite of mine as the big leaves provide movement when they catch on a breeze. Be warned, this is not a multi season shrub. While Red Buckeye Aesculus pavia may be among the first to wake in the spring, it is also among the first to lose its leaves in late summer and fall. This is an important feature to understand about red buckeye as it should not be a ‘front of the border plant’. It will do best in a naturalized setting or mixed border where the late summer decline is not an eyesore. While it may be grown in shade to part shade, I have found that protecting it from the afternoon sun will help it last longer in the summer and save it from leaf scorch. The ideal sun location for me has been under deciduous canopy trees which allow red buckeye spring sun for flower production but by late summer it is in deep shade.
Finally in fall the buckeye seed capsules develop on branch ends. They form light brown, globular 1-2” diameter seed pods which hold 1 – 3 seeds inside. While the seeds themselves are supposed to be poisonous to wildlife, if you wish to collect seeds from red buckeye you will have to beat the squirrels and chipmunks to the buckeye pods.
Red Buckeye Aesculus pavia is easy to grow rich loamy soil with a neutral or even basic pH. I have grown them in acidic soil under pines and they have flourished, however the advice is to use lime in acid soils. They will tolerate clay. Moisture requirements are medium and it is a plant that will survive flooding or periods of drought, however if left dry for too long will have leaf loss. My experience is that it is best with a little more water than the other plants in the garden.
It is not a difficult plant to find in the nursery trade but may take a bit of calling around to locate. I have found it at nurseries that carry natives along with a few larger scale landscaping supply nurseries. The spectacular spring flowers make Red Buckeye Aesculus pavia well worth the effort.
Red Buckeye Aesculus pavia can be a native plant alternative to invasive Princess Tree Paulownia tomentosa or Mimosa Albizia julibrissi.
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