The buckeye tree, also known as the Ohio buckeye, is a deciduous tree native to the central and Great Plains regions of the United States. The Ohio state tree, it thrives in this central location, but can also be found growing further south in isolated cases. Its botanical name, Aesculus glabra, is derived from the Greek God of medicine, Aesculapius. However, the common name of buckeye was given to the tree by the Native Americans, who observed that the seeds of the tree look similar to the eye of a buck, or male deer.
Growing to a height of 30-50 feet (9-15 meters), and with a diameter of 2-3 inches (5-7.6 centimeters), the buckeye tree is considered medium sized. It will typically reach maturity after about 60-80 years, if it is grown in optimal conditions. The buckeye tree prefers deep, fertile soil and if given such an environment, will begin to produce seeds within the first 5-10 years.
The buckeye tree consists of compound leaves, which are long and serrated with five elliptical leaflets, each growing from 4-6 inches (10-15 centimeters) in length. When in bloom, the buckeye produces pale white flowers which appear on branched clusters, also about 4-6 inches (10-15 centimeters) in length. The fruit of the buckeye tree is a spiny round capsule, about 1-2 inches (2.5-5 centimeters) in diameter, which holds from 1-5 nuts.
The nuts produced by the tree, also known as simply buckeyes, are a chestnut brown color, and typically bear a glossy sheen. They have a lighter colored “eye” in the center, which is where the resemblance to a real “buck eye” can be seen. They are very smooth when touched, and have a hard outer shell that can be difficult to penetrate.
Today the buckeye tree is used symbolically more than practically, but throughout history it has had many different uses, from furniture making to food. Native Americans would roast, peel and mash the nuts; making them into a meal they called hetuk. They would also blanch the nuts and extract the tannic acid for use in leatherworking. Early settlers to the United States used the tree’s lightweight wood as a whittling and carving medium, and to make eating utensils, furniture, and baskets.
In folklore, the buckeye tree also has several uses. The nut is considered a good luck charm, and is carried or worn to increase both the wisdom and luck of the bearer. It is also believed to relieve the pain of rheumatism and arthritis when carried on the person, or near the site of pain. Although these claims have not been scientifically proven, they have been present in American folklore for centuries.