• ljmarkson

Grow a Native Buckeye Tree from Seed

Several of the multiple buckeye species that grow in North America are native to Georgia. Bottlebrush buckeye is native to Alabama, Georgia, and northern Florida. It’s a 6–12-foot understory deciduous tree with a similar spread and grows slowly 1 to 3 feet per year. The long “bottlebrush” wands of whitish flowers start blooming in late spring to attract butterflies, a host of pollinators and even hummingbirds. The average time it takes for buckeye to produce seeds is 5-10 years, but they can start blooming as early as 3 years from seed in ideal conditions.

I took this photo in June of a bottlebrush buckeye blooming in the shade of the old growth trees in Fernbank Forest.

In October, my friend Pat dropped off a generous handful of native bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora) seeds with directions to plant them immediately. They are easy to grow from seed if the seeds are planted within a week of being collected.

Pat's directions were simple and direct enough for me to use as a template for this post!

I've expanded Pat's directions below for winter sowing buckeye seeds, which is a method for planting seeds outside so they get the cold they need to germinate, but have the added protection of being in a pot.

How To Grow a Native Buckeye Tree from Seed

  • I’m cautious around any plants known to be toxic and wear gardening gloves when handling buckeye seeds because they are poisonous if ingested. For adults who aren't as anxious as I am, this probably isn’t much of a worry - particularly since carrying a buckeye seed around as a good luck charm is a tradition in Ohio and the Appalachian Mountains. You can even buy an engraved buckeye seed to put in your pocket! Children and pets are still a wild card so I'd still be vigilant...when my son was young, I could imagine he might have licked a shiny buckeye seed if he found one! I can't bring buckeye seeds in my house even now because our indiscriminate dog eats any kind of natural matter she finds in the house.

There are several artists who make buckeye art and jewelry, including "Lord Eugene" who makes these charms.
  • Collect buckeye seeds as soon as they fall to the ground. Only recently fallen buckeye seeds will be reliably viable. Once the seeds dry out, it’s more difficult for them to break dormancy and germinate. If the seeds look dull and dry, soak for 2-4 hours. The seeds can also be pulled off the tree when the pods split open to ensure freshness, with the bonus of beating hungry squirrels to them.

  • If the hard outer husk is still on and closed, dry the fruit for a couple days until it splits open so you can remove the brown seeds or soak the seeds for 24 hours in cold water to soften the outer shell

  • Plant the buckeye seeds - The planting medium needs to drain well. I used a mix of half organic potting soil and half soil conditioner. Some folks mix 1 part sand to 3 parts garden soil to ensure drainage. -Only half the buckeye seeds are likely to germinate, so plant seeds 2-3 inches apart. One gallon nursery pots are great because they aren’t too heavy to move around and offer room for sprouts to grow roots before being transplanted.

I planted the seeds Pat gave me a few inches apart in one of the many nursery pots I collect for winter sowing.
  • Plant the seeds about 1-2 inches deep, or about twice the diameter of the seed -depending on the size of the seed.

Not much to see here!
  • cover the pot with leaves, mulch, pine straw, or a thin layer of sand to keep seeds in place when the soil freezes and thaws throughout the winter.

I experimented a little by using both pine needles and leaves from my yard to make a little protective winter blanket for the pots.
  • Once planted, cover the pots to stop squirrels from digging in them. All parts of the tree are toxic including the leaves, bark, and nut, but squirrels are believed to be the only animal to eat buckeyes without getting sick. Other animals and people can have muscle weakness, paralysis, intestinal distress or vomiting if they eat buckeye seeds.

Squirrels are such adaptable and fascinating creatures! Eating poisonous seeds is such an unusual way to outcompete other wildlife for food!
  • I put the pots under pop up plant covers with my native plant seedlings where they can overwinter safely. Other ways to protect the pots include covering them with chicken wire or hardware cloth with a weight on top. I’ve seen the suggestion to use bird netting to cover the pots, but this could entangle and harm creatures instead of just deterring them.

I found these great pop up plant covers online to put all my pots under so the squirrels and chipmunks can't get them.
  • Place the pot in a sheltered area where you can keep an eye on them. The only care in winter is to water the pot just enough to keep it evenly moist like the conditions along a stream bank or bottomland where the buckeye would naturally grow.

  • The bottlebrush buckeye seeds will sprout in the early spring. My friend Amy gave me a bottlebrush buckeye seedling this fall that had already sprouted from a seed she had planted in early fall - it must be an overachiever!

This is the tiny bottlebrush buckeye sprout my friend gave me this fall.
  • Once the seedlings sprout, continue to keep them moist in a partially shady area of the yard throughout the spring and summer.

  • In the fall after germination, plant the buckeye seedlings in humus rich soil with lots of natural matter…no fertilizer necessary. With Atlanta's hot summers buckeye trees thrive best in a partially shady area. The seedlings also need to be planted at the same depth in the ground as they were growing in the pot.

This young bottlebrush buckeye is ready to go in the ground.

My fingers are crossed for my buckeye seeds to sprout next spring to add to my rewilded yard, and to share!

By the time a healthy sprout break through the soil, it already has a mass of roots to support its growth. (I dug this one out to show the growth then put it back to bed.)

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