If you’re looking for a beautiful small tree for your landscape, consider planting a buckeye. I know what you’re thinking, but you don’t have to live in Ohio to enjoy this lovely tree. Buckeyes produce gorgeous flowers that the hummingbirds adore, and most species are fairly small-statured, so they don’t take up a ton of space.
Unfortunately, buckeyes are often confused with horse chestnuts (Aesculus hippocastanum), an introduced species from Europe. While buckeyes are also in the genus Aesculus, most are natives of the New World. Horse chestnuts, like buckeyes, produce spiky seed cases that house the nut, but the trees of horse chestnuts can grow quite large, while most species of buckeyes are far smaller. The seeds of both buckeyes and horse chestnuts are moderately toxic and should not be eaten.
Let me introduce you to a few species of buckeyes that are totally garden-worthy.
1. Red Buckeye (Aesculus pavia)
Of all the buckeyes, this is my personal favorite. Sometimes called a firecracker tree for its brilliant-red blooms, the red buckeye produces spikes of bright flowers each spring. At maturity, the tree is only 15 feet tall, and it’s hardy from USDA Zones 4 to 8. Mine started to flower when it was only 2 years old. The red buckeye can be grown as a tree, or if the leader is pruned out, it will grow as a clumping shrub.
2. Bottlebrush Buckeye (Aesculus parviflora)
This species is more of a multi-stemmed shrub than a tree, and it’s downright lovely. Reaching 12 to 15 feet in height, it’s a great large shrub for full to partial shade. Large bottlebrush-like spires of white flowers appear in mid-summer. The butterflies adore this plant, but the deer don’t seem to like it very much. It’s a nice dense shrub, so it’s perfect for a privacy hedge or road block.
3. Ohio Buckeye (Aesculus glabra)
This species is among the largest of the native Aesculus species, reaching up to 30 feet tall. Creamy yellow flowers occur in early spring. They have a sweet fragrance and are followed by the familiar spiky seedpods of all buckeye species. The hummingbirds and butterflies are frequent flower visitors. This buckeye likes fairly wet soil conditions, so it’s a great choice for low-lying areas and poorly drained sites.
4. Red Horse Chestnut (Aesculus x carnea)
A hybrid between the European horse chestnut and our native red buckeye, this stunning tree is a hummingbird magnet. Topping off at about 30 feet, the May-blooming red horse chestnut is a great small tree that is suited to shadier locations, as well as those in full sun. Like other buckeyes, the foliage may scorch during hot summers, but other than that, the plant is easy to care for. The upright flower spikes are a lovely pinkish-red. I have the cultivar Briotii, which is said to have the best coloration of all the varieties and is also the most resistant to fungal diseases.