The red buckeye is a small tree or large shrub that belongs to the Hippocastanaceae, or horse chestnut, family. Other common names for the red buckeye are firecracker plant, scarlet buckeye, and southern buckeye. Most nurseries list it as Aesculus pavia although some use its synonym Aesculus splendes; buyers, therefore, may need to research it under various names. Like many of the buckeye trees, red buckeye is native to the United States from the East Coast west to the Missouri area, including parts of central Texas.
People call it the "firecracker plant" because the bright red flowers resemble a bunch of firecrackers. In some plants, the flowers may be pinkish red, red with yellow markings, or yellow, such as in the Aesculus pavia variety, flavescens. Generally, the flowers rise above the stem in conical panicles. A conical panicle is a cone-shaped spike that is a multi-branched stalk of flowers. Usually, it blooms from the bottom upward.
Each individual flower has a tube, which ends in four or five petals, and a noticeable deep red calyx that sometimes is longer than the flower tube. The calyx looks like a cap at the flower base and is actually a whorl of petal-like sepals. The flowers and calyx usually are 1 to 1.5 (approximately 2.5 to 3.5 cm) long and 0.5 to 1.25 (about 1.5 to 3 cm) across at the petal end. Often the reddish stamens extend slightly past the flower petals. The red buckeye's impressive panicles may rise up to 6 to 8 inches (about 15 to 20 cm) tall.
The flowers usually mature into the fruit or nut that gives it the name "buckeye." The actual buckeye grows in a thin husk. Typically, two or more of the shiny, reddish brown buckeyes grow in these light brown pods. The seed or nut looks like an edible chestnut, but they are poisonous to livestock and humans. Indians used to carry the buckeyes in their pouches or pockets for good luck and as a deterrent for rheumatism.
The deep green leaves of the red buckeye are palmate in shape. This means they are a compound leaf having leaflets that grow from the same place on the stem. Usually the red buckeye has five to seven leaflets in each palmate grouping. Each leaflet typically is lance-shaped, up to 5 inches (about 13 cm) long; the entire palmate leaf may be about 10 inches (25 cm) across. The leaves often appear earlier in the spring than other trees, but drop earlier in the autumn.