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Buckeyes and Horse Chestnuts (Aesculus spp.)

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Earlier in the year, I posted a picture of California buckeye (Aesculus californica) leaf buds. I thought it was only fair to show the rest of it. The most spectacular part, of course, is the amazing flower spikes, about 8 to 12 inches (20 t0 30 cm) long, with a mild scent and amazing coloration, if you look closely.

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But even apart from their flowers, buckeyes are stellar plants. Many might disagree with me, calling them shrubby or weedy. And it is true that, while they are the first trees to show that brilliant chartreuse-green in spring and then fan their leaves out, they are also the first to drop their leaves, usually sometime in September, when all the other leaves are still growing strong, and the dying falling buckeye leaves are a bit depressing in an already-sere landscape.

Buckeyes are prominent natives in my landscape, and they used to be a major food for the Pomo Indians, who leached the poisons out of them in order to eat the meaty, chestnut-like nut. Their name for this tree was De-sa Ka-la, which means “food tree”.

It may sound odd, then, to hear that other native Californians (possibly the Pomo, too) used them unleached, to stun fish: put in a river pool, fish die and float to the surface. Not a method for sport-fishing, but used judiciously, a good way to be sure of fish when you depend on them for food.

The substances that poison the fish can also poison human beings with nerve and respiratory failure: the bark, twigs, flowers, and leaves are as dangerous as the unleached nuts, which are a beautiful shiny glossy brown and fit beautifully in the palm for stroking with your fingers. (I’m sure this is stress-reducing). These toxins are also in the Ohio buckeye Aesculus glabra.

The Asian horse chestnut (Aesculus hipposcastanum), on the other hand, was used medicinally in Europe for intermittent fevers and respiratory problems-though it was also known to be a nerve poison, like its American relatives. (If you find this strange, think for a moment about the toxicity of many medical drugs today.) Its folk use was in salves for rheumatism and hemorrhoids. The skin probably filtered the active ingredients somewhat, so that it was relatively safe. These trees are often found in the eastern U.S., and have looser flower spikes with hints of pink and yellow in them, if you look close.

California buckeyes have adapted well to their environment; while they tend to like streamsides and wet places, they also grow in places with no obvious water. I don’t know if they indicate a high water table or if they are just very tolerant of a wide range of places. They grow in semishade as well as full sun.

Buckeyes also range in size and shape: they can be small shrubby plants several feet high, and they can be many-branched tall trees up to about thirty feet. I’d guess this has to do with available water and nutrients. Their bark is smooth and pale, although in my area it tends to accrue lichen and moss-both of which accentuate its appearance, to my mind, rather than mar it.

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I’ve never grown a buckeye, simply because there are so many around already, I’ve never felt the need. If you want to try, I’d suggest choosing a variety that suits your area. Rather than struggling to fit the dry-summer-loving California buckeye into a cold or wet-summer place, choose A. glabra (Ohio buckeye) or A. hippocastanum (horse chestnut). Horse chestnuts are tall beautiful thick-trunked trees, so if you want to grow one of them, make room.

Winter hardiness is another thing to consider when choosing your variety. California buckeyes grow only in lower elevations, which means they will take some freezing, but probably would not do well in prolonged-cold winters.

It’s interesting to ponder that a tree that is entirely toxic can also be a food staple. Yet more proof that inconsistency is not a strictly human trait.

References

LoLo Westrich, California Herbal Remedies, Gulf Publishing Company, 1989

Charles F. Millspaugh, American Medicinal Plants, originally published in 1892. Mine is a Dover reprint.

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