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What Is a Buckeye Tree?

By C. Ausbrooks
Updated May 16, 2024
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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.

What Does a Buckeye Tree Look Like in Winter?

Trees can be tough to identify when you can't see their leaves, blossoms, or fruits. There are still a few things to look for in a potential buckeye, though, even in winter. First of all, look at the size of the tree and the location. An Ohio buckeye often grows to about 30 to 50 feet tall and loves water. If you've found a tree (or a stand of trees) approximately that size along a waterway in Ohio, look at the bark next. If it's Aesculus glabra, its bark should be light gray to light brown and have a flaky appearance. If you can see the ground around the trees or dig around in the snow, you may find last year's leftover buckeyes, which would help confirm that you've found a buckeye tree.

What Tree Does a Buckeye Come From Outside of Ohio?

There are many varieties of Aesculus, including the shrubby Texas buckeye, the flowery California buckeye, the painted (also called Georgia) buckeye, and the dwarf red buckeye. As the names suggest, buckeyes are common in many places besides Ohio. If you think you've found a buckeye tree but are far away from Ohio, you may be right! On the other hand, the horse chestnut tree (a European variety of Aesculus) and the true chestnut (genus Castanea) have fruits that resemble buckeyes, so you may have found one of those. No matter where your buckeyes come from, remember that they are toxic and can make people and pets very ill. Never eat a buckeye!

Where Do Buckeye Trees Grow Best?

Buckeye trees thrive in United States Department of Agriculture hardiness zones five through nine in consistently moist but well-drained soil. Like many trees, they appreciate being mulched in a yard because they don't have the natural forested ground cover to keep their roots moist. To grow a buckeye tree at home, start with a sapling from a nursery and plant it in spring or fall to give it the best chance to thrive. When deciding where to plant your buckeye tree, remember that it drops blossoms and fruit throughout spring and summer. Depending on the variety, your tree may also get huge, so allow for that when choosing the perfect spot.

How Do You Use Buckeyes in Jewelry?

With so much lore about the luckiness or healing powers of buckeyes, it's understandable that buckeye jewelry has been popular for hundreds of years. How do you make jewelry from a nut, though, without it rotting?

Start With Mature Buckeyes

Wait until the buckeye tree has dropped its fruits before collecting them. Although picking them right off the tree is tempting, the ones you pick won't be mature yet and will shrivel when you try to process them. When you wait to pick them off the ground, you'll have competition from squirrels, but there should be plenty of fruits to go around.

Thoroughly Dry the Buckeyes

Once you've opened the fruits to find the shiny buckeye nuts, it's time to dry them. You can try to do this outdoors in the sun, but, again, you'll have to fight off the squirrels. If you do dry them outdoors, try placing them in a single layer on a screen or baking rack so that air can circulate all around them and dry them evenly. The simplest way to dry them, though, is to put them on a rack on top of a baking sheet and bake them for a few hours at around 200 degrees. Turn them over after an hour or so, especially if you put them directly onto the baking sheet instead of elevating them on an oven-safe rack. When you remove all the moisture by completely drying the buckeyes, they're much less likely to rot later on, as long as you also keep the final product dry.

Drill Carefully

Before you can string your new buckeye beads and make them into necklaces, earrings, or bracelets, you need to make holes. The easiest way to do this is to use a drill press with a tiny bit (think 1/16 of an inch), but you can also do it with a handheld drill. The key is to hold the nut in a vise to keep your fingers out of the danger zone. If you've never drilled buckeyes before, practice on a few of your least favorite ones from the batch to get used to how the drill pressure changes as you push the bit through the hard shell, the softer nut, and then the hard shell again.

Where Do Buckeye Trees Grow?

Depending on the variety of buckeye, the trees can grow anywhere in United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) plant hardiness zones 5a-9b. The USDA divides the country by what types of plants will grow and thrive depending on the climate in the region.

Zones run from 1a to 13b, and vary based on average minimum temperatures. Zones five through nine have average minimum temperatures from -10 to -20 degrees Fahrenheit in zone five through 20 to 30 degrees in zone nine. These zones cover much of the continental U.S., so buckeye trees may be found just about anywhere.

There are some cultivars of buckeye trees named for the primary location where they’re found. The most well-known is the Ohio buckeye, which is not just the state tree. Ohio natives are referred to as Buckeyes, as are graduates of the Ohio State University. Ohio State sports fans are Buckeyes, as well. On game days, they may make candy buckeyes, by dipping spheres of peanut butter fudge into melted chocolate, leaving the “eye” exposed.

Ohio buckeye trees (Aesculus glabra) grow to a height of 20-40 feet tall and bear cone-shaped clusters of yellow-green flowers. The bark is gray and rough, becoming flaky as the tree ages. The seeds of Ohio buckeyes are mahogany brown with a tan “eye.” Ohio buckeye trees are also known as American buckeye trees and fetid buckeyes. When the leaves are crushed, they give off a foul odor, giving them the name stinking buckeyes.

The Texas buckeye (Aesculus glabra var. arguta), growing in North-central Texas, is typically grown as a smaller tree or a large bush, though it can grow up to 40 feet tall. Its flowers are cream to yellow. The fruit produces one to three buckeye seeds.

Red buckeyes (Aesculus pavia) grow from Virginia south to Florida, and from eastern Texas north to Illinois. They’re identified by their bright red flowers that grow up to 10” long and their reddish-brown seeds. They’re great for backyards, since they only grow 12-15 feet tall. The dwarf red buckeye is a shorter, shrub-like tree.

Yellow buckeye trees (Aesculus pavia) grow to 50-75 feet tall and are recognized by their bright yellow flowers. They’re found from Pennsylvania to Georgia. Unlike most buckeye varieties, whose fruits are spiny, yellow buckeye fruits are smooth and leathery.

Georgia buckeyes (Aesculus sylvatica) are also known as painted buckeyes. Its leaves sprout in the spring in various shades of red before slowly turning green, and its flowers are yellow. You can see them in the Southeastern U.S., growing from six to 15 feet in height.

California buckeyes (Aesculus californica) grow from 15-30 feet tall, with sweet-smelling, bright white flowers that grow up to 12” and have spider-like stamens that make them look like candelabras. Their seeds are orange-brown, rather than the mahogany of most other varieties. They’re found in the Sierra mountains.

Bottlebrush buckeyes (Aesculus parviflora) are the only real shrubs in the buckeye family. The long white flowers look furry or fuzzy. They grow eight to 12 feet tall and spread 15 feet wide. They’re native to Alabama and Georgia, but can grow as far north as Maine.

How To Grow a Buckeye Tree?

It’s easy to grow buckeyes in USDA zones 5-9. They thrive in full sun and do well in partial shade. It’s important to keep them well-hydrated — you’ll want to keep the dirt around them moist, using mulch to keep it that way longer. Just don’t mulch too close to the tree, as that can lead to root rot.

Consider the variety of buckeye you want to grow. You don’t want an Ohio, Texas or yellow buckeye in your backyard unless you have a large parcel of land. You also don’t want buckeyes in high-traffic areas, since they drop their fruit in the fall.

How Did the Buckeye Tree Get Its Name?

The buckeye got its name from Native Americans, who thought the seed of the tree resembled the eye of a buck — a male deer. However, the scientific name came from a different source. The Greek god Aesculapius was honored by naming the buckeye tree after him. It’s somewhat ironic that this tree where every part of it is poisonous was named for the God of Medicine.

Buckeye trees can be found almost anywhere in the contiguous U.S., as short as eight feet in height to towering 70-foot giants. Their flowers vary in color from white, to yellow or red. However, they do have one major thing in common: they all bear the same unmistakable “buck’s eye” seeds.

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Discussion Comments
By hyrax53 — On Jul 26, 2011

@DentalFloss- I don't think I've ever heard of people eating buckeye nuts, though I guess it's good that the are not overly poisonous.

As for the questions about the candy yes, they have peanut butter and milk chocolate, traditionally. Although I did know someone who made them more like a peanut M&M, leaving one large who nut in the center. That was a pretty delicious variation. Most, though, just fill the center with peanut butter, and usually creamy.

By DentalFloss — On Jul 25, 2011

@anon132867- Buckeye tree nuts are not especially poisonous. For people, they shouldn't be eaten raw, though they're edible if you heat and leach them (though they also aren't thought to be that tasty). As for cattle, I've never heard that, though I don't think cows would be able to eat the hard nuts off the ground.

By anon132867 — On Dec 08, 2010

I thought the nut was poisonous to cattle and that you should not let the cattle graze near a buckeye tree.

By anon123409 — On Nov 01, 2010

The tree is 2-3 inches in diameter? I don't think so.

By anon81564 — On May 02, 2010

It's peanut butter fudge coated in chocolate, made to look like a buckeye nut.

By anon78238 — On Apr 17, 2010

No, they do not actually use the nut.

By nightlights — On Jan 15, 2010

Do they use the actual nuts to make Buckeye Candy? I've heard the candy is really popular during holidays, I'm guessing it's like roasted, chocolate coated buckeye nuts or buckeye crumbles dipped in chocolate?

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