Although red buckeye (Aesculus pavia) lacks the refined and symmetrical stature of commercially successful small ornamental trees, it makes up for it with an impressive show of 6- to 10-inch long salmon- to cherry-red flower spikes borne at the ends of its branches. These hummingbird magnets emerge in April and coincide with the spring migration of ruby-throated hummingbirds. The nectar also fortifies other pollinators including eastern tiger swallowtail butterflies, bumblebees, and carpenter bees.
In nature this large shrub to small tree (10 to 20 ft.) grows wild in floodplains and swamp forests throughout the southeast; however, I’ve seen it successfully cultivated en masse in woodland gardens, as accent or specimen plants in landscapes, and in downtown city parks.
Once the flowers have faded I enjoy the dark green palmately compound leaves and smooth gray bark. Later in the season potato-shaped husks that arose from the flowers mature and split open in September and October to reveal 1 to 3 shiny brown nut-like seeds. The seeds are poisonous and avoided by most wildlife, but relished by squirrels.
Red buckeye checks out and goes dormant by September with no colorful fanfare. However, when provided with moist, partially shaded conditions, the leaves will turn yellow.
I accept the early departure of red buckeye as it disappears in my landscape. Its leafless branches receive quizzical looks from friends and passersby who typically ask: “Is it dead?” Despite its forlorn look in the fall and winter months, red buckeye will always have a place in my garden. Its flowers sustain my spirit and they nourish the bodies of well-travelled, winged pollinators.