Red Buckeye

Recently, one of our guests sent a picture wondering what the name of the amazingly exotic looking flower and leaf (pictured above) they saw during their walk through the gardens. Side note: if you let on to your friends you might know some plants, this might happen to you. To be forewarned is to be forearmed, I always say. 

I was happy to inform them they were looking at Aesculus pavia, or red buckeye (family: Sapindaceae), the dreaded nemesis of every alumni of the University of Michigan. Given it’s been awhile since we’ve botanized (i.e. nerding out on chlorophyll), I thought I would take up your valuable Saturday morning coffee time chatting about an underutilized beauty.

I first encountered red buckeye in the bird garden section of Cleveland Botanical Garden’s Hershey Children’s Garden, where I was the manager. The striking red panicle flowers stood out in the flower bed, as do any Aesculus species. The long individual tubular red flowers of the panicle are tailor made for hummingbirds. However, according to Dirr (and if you do not know who Michael Dirr is, I am not talking to you any more), there are naturally occurring populations of yellow flowering individuals that get 10-20’ high in cultivation and are typically multi-stemmed with a rounded top. The foliage can start out pretty shiny and new, but by late summer (like many species in the genus), they begin to look terrible due to sun scorch. They seem to grow best in moist, part-shaded areas, and they tend to peter out if growing in hot, dry summer conditions. The dehiscent fruit reveals shiny brown seeds toxic to most wildlife except the blessed urban squirrel.

The next time you are at Wellfield, check out our Aesculus pavia, blooming right now near the lily pad bridge adjacent to the Children’s Garden. We’re open daily, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.
Josh Steffen, Horticulture and Facilities Manager