Questions on: Ohio Buckeye

Ron Smith, Horticulturist, NDSU Extension Service

Q: I am an Ohio State fan (in spite of their poor showing against the Florida Gators!) and would like to plant an Ohio Buckeye tree. Someone told me that a horse chestnut is basically the same tree. Is that correct? I don't want to regret planting the wrong tree years down the road. (e-mail reference)

A: It is good of you to remain loyal to the Buckeyes! They will redeem themselves in future games, I'm sure. The difference between a horse chestnut and an Ohio Buckeye is about as big as the difference between a spider monkey and King Kong. The horse chestnut will grow to 60 to 80 feet with a spread half that or more. It is a huge tree that is intended for use in large parks or commercial sites. As an ornamental, the Ohio Buckeye is prized for its compound foliage, panicles of yellow flowers and the delightful combination of orange-red foliage and beige fruit in the fall. Buckeye is seed propagated, so there is considerable variation among individual trees. Fall color ranges from scarlet red to more subtle tones of orange and yellow. Although Ohio Buckeye typically has been propagated by seed, North Dakota State University recently has named a clonal cultivar of Buckeye known as Prairie Torch. This hardy selection has a dense, globose form with a mature height of 20 to 28 feet. The leaves turn a brilliant orange red in the fall. It was developed by NDSU's woody plant researcher, Dale Herman. Autumn Splendor, another superior cultivar of Ohio Buckeye, was developed by the University of Minnesota. It has many of the same superior characteristics of the Prairie Torch. One or both should be available in most garden centers this spring. However, a word of caution. The nuts are considered toxic and can cause paralysis, vomiting and more. Native Americans used the nut ground into powder to scatter on ponds to stun fish.

Q: At my place of employment, there was a beautiful buckeye tree. Last fall, as the nuts fell off, I collected some to bring home to see if the squirrels would eat them. I put the nuts on the tray of a bird feeder and they all disappeared. This spring, as I was preparing my flower beds, I found a plant that I didn't recognize. I dug it up and found attached to the roots a nut from a buckeye tree. I promptly found a place for it and planted it. I found six more of these baby buckeye trees and also planted a second one. So far, both trees are thriving. I guess the squirrels were burying the nuts instead of eating them. I thought this tidbit might be interesting to other gardeners wondering if the nuts (seeds) will grow. I love your Web site because I have learned a lot from it. (Grafton, N.D.)

A: Thanks for the kind words. Yes, squirrels are "nature's landscapers." Their intent is to bury nuts as a future food source. However, like humans, they forget where they put half of what they hide!

Q: How do I grow an Ohio buckeye tree from a seed? Do I just plant it in the ground or do I have to let it have a cold treatment? (E-mail reference)

A: By planting it in the ground at this time of year, it will get the necessary cold treatment for growth next spring.

Q: I have several Ohio Buckeye seedlings. How long before the trees produce seeds? Also, what is a good fertilizer for the trees? (E-mail reference)

A: They will start producing seed when they begin flowering, which should be in three to five years. Most trees don't need fertilizer but if they do, very little. A 10-10-10 material is usually used.

Q: Are you able to answer more questions about the Ohio buckeye? As a child I was told it was lucky to rub a buckeye. Do you know anything about the origin of this superstition? I'd appreciate any further information. I am considering writing a children's article about the buckeye. (E-mail reference)

A: I am not familiar with the lore you mention, but I do know as a kid we used to collect buckeyes (and horsechestnuts too) and wax them to a high shine. Then we would drive a nail through the "buck's eye" to make a hole, then take an old sneaker shoe lace, slip it through the hole, tie an oversized knot in the end, and play the game "kinger." For example, I would have a collection of buckeyes or horsechestnuts hanging from my belt and I would come to you who also had such a collection. One of us would challenge the other: "My ‘two kinger’ can smash anything you have on your belt!" and the other would accept the challenge. So you would take your favorite buckeye and hold it in front of you, dangling from the sneaker lace, and I would take my "kinger" and see if I could smash yours by striking it with mine while still attached to the sneaker lace. If I failed, then you had equal right to strike mine. If by chance yours smashed mine, then you gained the "two kinger" status that mine had held; if I smashed yours, then I gained another kinger! We would proudly flaunt our buckeyes, bragging which one had the greatest status. Some of us would "cheat" and shellac our best kinger to make it harder. All of this was "guy stuff." The girls would stand around and watch this foolishness. We would occasionally ask our "girl associates" (too young to be classed as girl friends) to kiss the buckeye prior to going into "battle" for good luck. It sometimes worked and sometimes didn't, of course!

That's about all I have to contribute that would be of kid interest. Hope it helps!

Q. Enclosed please find some leaves from our chestnut tree. This tree is 6 feet tall. It grows about a foot per year and the leaves are nice and green, but as summer comes these leaves start turning brown like the samples. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated so we can get this tree to look better. 

Thanks for your help. We enjoy reading your column in the Sun Country and have learned a lot from it. (Lehr, N.D.)

A. Your tree is an Ohio buckeye, similar to a chestnut.

Unfortunately, the seedlings of Ohio buckeyes are subject to leaf scorch for which there is no spray for curing. This commonly happens in areas of the landscape where competition for soil moisture is high.  The best bet is to try and water during the growing season to keep the tree well hydrated and make it believe it is along the moist banks of the Ohio river.

Q: I have a horsechestnut tree that drops many pods in the fall. I would like to start some for spring planting. What is the procedure? (Jamestown, N.D.)

A: First, your tree is not a horsechestnut but rather an Ohio buckeye--similar, but vastly different in size. Simply plant the seed (nut) in the fall where
you want the tree to grow. Your biggest enemy will be squirrels. They are great at finding what you plant, so cover the seeds with hardware cloth until
germination occurs.

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