Ruby Flowers for Ruby Throats

Red Buckeye Flowers

My Red Buckeye (Aesculus pavia) is starting to bloom right on schedule. I took this photo yesterday during our brief sunny spell. This native understory tree common to moist forests and stream banks throughout the southeastern US Coastal Plain and lower Piedmont is one of the first red-flowering natives to bloom every spring.

I think of Red Buckeyes as the welcoming committee for returning Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds. Their annual return to my region always coincides with the first blooms of Red Buckeyes and Eastern Columbines. In fact, I’ve got sugar water cooling on my counter. I’ll be filling and hanging my hummingbird feeder later today when the precipitation tapers off a bit.

I haven’t seen any hummers yet — the red-throated males always show up first to stake out their territories. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t out there, probably tired and hungry from their migration flight from Central America. I’m betting I’ll see one or two precipitation-dampened beauties on the feeder soon after I put it out.

The Red Buckeye on my floodplain was not growing there when we moved in. I planted it about 15 years ago, knowing that this native would be happy in that spot, and that the hummingbirds would appreciate the early nectar supplied by its flowers. The tree usually tops out at between 20-25 feet and tends to be rather wide and low, almost shrubby.

What I didn’t count on was Red Buckeye’s talent for spreading itself around. Botanically speaking, the fruits are capsules, but a casual observer would call them nuts — or buckeyes, as you may have heard them called. All parts of this tree — leaves, flowers, and fruits — are highly poisonous. Ingestion can be fatal, so you may not want this tree in your yard if you have small children or dogs that like to nibble on plants. I suspect the toxicity of the fruits is responsible for this tree’s talent for planting itself far from the mother tree.

I’m finding seedlings all over my yard now, quite a distance from the original tree I planted, as I reported here. I suspect that squirrels know the fruit is poisonous, but they can’t overcome their instinct to bury nuts, so they transport the Red Buckeye fruits to all parts of my yard and bury them. The seeds sprout, and another tree is born. If they’re not in the way, I’m leaving them alone. But more and more now, I’m pulling them out.

I know from talking to the staff at the NC Botanical Garden that they no longer encourage folks to plant this native, because of its talent for spreading itself around. But I’m not planning on eradicating all of my Red Buckeyes. The early red tubular flowers are quite striking — as are the compound, palmately arranged leaves.

Most important for me, a mature tree covered in red flower clusters in early April is like a neon sign to returning hummingbirds: Good Eats Here — Open All Day.

And one can never have too many Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds.

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  1. Flowers come and (mostly) gone « Piedmont Gardener
  2. Current Bloomers « Piedmont Gardener

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