The Horsechestnut Tree
Find out where George Washington planted this native American tree.
Horsechestnut (Aesculus spp.) is one of the old common names for the genus that includes “horse chestnuts” of Europe and Asia as well as the “buckeyes” native to North America. Loosely speaking buckeyes are horse chestnuts, but not all horse chestnuts are buckeyes. It has become fairly common to differentiate between “horse chestnuts” and “buckeyes” as the nuts themselves have slightly differing appearances, but then there are slight differences among all the species. Such is the confusion in plant names. By the way none of these are edible in their natural state as true chestnuts are. For clarity’s sake, this article will discuss Aesculus flava (some sources list it as Aesculus octandra), an American native species often called yellow buckeye.
Yellow buckeye (a.k.a. sweet buckeye, big buckeye) is a medium to large deciduous tree, commonly reaching over sixty feet tall with an oval-shaped crown. The dark green leaves in some specimens emerge with a purple tint and turn a rich orange color in fall. The slightly greenish, yellow flowers appear in seven inch panicles in mid spring. The smooth pear-shaped fruits ripen in fall, bearing two seeds each. This variety of “horse chestnut” is useful as a large flowering specimen or shade tree. Hardy in zones 4-8.
Yellow buckeye is a common species in the mixed hardwood forests of the central and southern Appalachians. It is found from the lowlands along rivers as well as slopes and up to the tops of mountains. It ranges from Pennsylvania to Georgia, westward to Illinois, Oklahoma and Texas.
George Washington is said to have become smitten with a red flowered form of this species near the mouth of the Cheat River in (now) West Virginia while paying a visit to Colonel Morgan Morgan in 1784. He collected seeds from the tree and planted them at Mt. Vernon where the offspring grew, producing several different shades of bloom and varying sizes. These few curious plants inspired a century-long search for the red flowering form of yellow buckeye. As it turns out, it was a naturally occurring hybrid between yellow buckeye and its diminutive southern neighbor the red buckeye (A. pavia). The hybridization of these species can occur with Ruby Throated hummingbird being the pollen carrier as it migrates north in spring.
Although the trees commonly grow tall and straight with clear trunks, the wood is of low value because it is both light and weak, and decays easily. It has been used for crates and boxes for shipping as well as pulpwood, but not aggressively sought even for these purposes.
Yellow buckeye has its greatest value in large landscapes. Its high degree of pollutant tolerance makes it a good candidate for urban settings. It is very useful in naturalized settings, and while the nuts are not utilized by wildlife, the flowers are a wonderful habitat plant for pollinators. Plant container grown or balled in burlap plants in full to partial sun, in moist, well drained soil.
Mulch well to maintain consistent soil moisture through summer. Little pruning, if any, is required.