A Brazos Bend Surprise

Red Buckeye  flower ~ Aesculus pavia

I’d meant to spend an early April day roaming the wildflower and prairie trails at Brazos Bend State Park, but when I asked a ranger if there might be wildflowers blooming in other areas of the park, she grinned and said, “The buckeyes still are blooming. If you walk the Red Buckeye trail, you should find them.” And so I did.

I’d never heard of Red Buckeyes, and assumed they’d be akin to most wildflowers, growing low to the ground. Eventually, I realized the clusters of red and yellow blooms rising above the lush green leaves of shrubs were the flowers I was seeking.

Aesculus pavia, commonly called red buckeye, is named for smooth, shiny seeds that ripen in the fall; some compare them to the eye of a buck. The genus name refers to a kind of oak bearing edible acorns, while the Specific epithet honors 17th century Dutch botanist Peter Paaw.

Unlike many acorns, Red Buckeye seeds are poisonous and avoided by most wildlife. Like other Aesculus species, the seeds’ toxins are capable of causing muscle weakness and paralysis. Native Americans used crushed buckeye seeds and branches to slow the movements of fish, making them easier to catch.

On the other hand, the flowers attract hummingbirds, and their relatively early bloom makes them an important food source during the birds’ migration. Other nectar feeders that visit the flowers include eastern tiger swallowtail butterflies, bumblebees, and carpenter bees.

A variety of red buckeye, Aesculus pavia var. flavescens, occurs naturally only on the limestone soils of the western Edwards Plateau. Smaller than A. pavia, its flowers are yellow; where the species appear together, hybridization may produce yellow and red flowers.

By August, this deciduous shrub will begin to lose its leaves, but next spring I’ll look forward to finding its flowers again; perhaps I’ll be lucky enough to find both red and yellow blooms.


Comments always are welcome.

45 thoughts on “A Brazos Bend Surprise

    1. I’d seen the Red Buckeye trail on the map, but never had gotten past the prairie and lakes. It’s a nice trail even without the Buckeyes, as it runs along the Brazos and Big Creek. I didn’t see any alligators at all, but of course the woods isn’t exactly their environment. There might have been one in the river, but the banks were pretty eroded, and I don’t know any gator that could have climbed them.

  1. Happy new. And happy red. Good luck finding the yellow variety when you visit the center of the state.

    A red buckeye grows near my normal entrance to Great Hills Park. I looked for the usual flashes of red this spring but saw none, perhaps due to the freezes that hit us two Februaries in a row.

    1. I almost missed these, as I was there at the very end of their bloom cycle. Here’s a surprise: the red buckeye is recommended for Zones 4-8, and is capable of withstanding minimum temperatures to -20°F to -30°. It can be found in Montana, Wyoming, North and South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, New York, and Maine, so it might not have been temperature that was the issue at Great Hills Park.

    1. It does pay to ask. My experience has been that all of the park rangers and game wardens know what’s happening in their territories, and they’re more than happy to share what they know. Believe it or not, this plant can do well in your area; it’s quite cold hardy. The downside is that it’s deciduous, and loses its leaves in the fall, but you’re pretty much used to thing losing their leaves, anyway.

    1. It’s easy to see why the hummingbirds would enjoy them; those trumpet shaped blooms seem custom made for them. Beyond that, the colors are beautiful. They weren’t hard to notice in the woods.

    1. I’ve been trying to figure out what they remind me of, and I finally decided it might be the red and yellow columbines that we have. It’s a pleasing combination, and they really do shine. I tried to capture the brilliance of sunlight shining through them, but the light wouldn’t “hold still” — the trees above them were blowing in the wind, so the light and shadow kept shifting. Still, there’s a sense of it; I’m glad they pleased you!

    1. I’ve always enjoyed seeing red and yellow tulips together, and it finally crossed my mind that these present the same combination of colors. I’ll have to be sure to look for them very early next year, since they’re one of the first spring bloomers. I read that migrating hummingbirds adore them — they provide nectar when many of the other plants are still ramping up for spring.

  2. That was a lovely discovery. It’s so rewarding to meet a new species of whose existence we didn’t even know when we left the house in the morning.
    I hope you will be able to see all the other varieties next year.

    1. This has been a year with more than the usual number of new plants for me. I’m not sure why. I suspect it’s a combination of timing and awareness on my part. In any event, it’s a great delight. The only real problem I have at this point is finding a way to keep up with nature — I’m still processing spring flowers, and she’s well into summer.

  3. The shining brilliance of these red-orange flowers! I’ll have to keep an eye out for them, perhaps they’re in Dunedin Botanic Garden. Hope so!

    1. I hope they are, too. The colors’s so vibrant and pure, I know they’d appeal to you. On the other hand, they’re deciduous, and by early autumn here are beginning to lose their leaves, so you probably won’t find them in bloom there now. At least if you can find the plants, you’ll know where to look for the flowers next spring.

    1. We have early spring flowers, later spring flowers, summer flowers, and autumn flowers. Even in fall, there are species that begin blooming in September or October — some of our goldenrods and sunflowers come to mind. And many that begin blooming now will persist until well into autumn, like the Turk’s Cap and various daisies. When I first started poking around, I couldn’t believe the abundance of flowers. To be honest, it’s still hard.

    1. It’s always fun to find something new, especially when it’s as pretty as this. I thought the structure of the flowers as interesting as their color was attractive.

    1. I like that combination, too. Red and yellow is a fabulous combination–except when those colors are the bands on a coral snake! When I moved to Texas, I learned the verse “Red and yellow, kill a fellow.” The colors on these flowers may be ‘killers,’ but in a different way!

  4. I wonder whether the seeds are consumed by any birds that have the capacity to neutralize the toxins. I know that Cedar Waxwings, for example, are capable of eating seeds that would be lethal to humans.

    1. Apparently the only creatures that have been known to eat them are the squirrels. Whether it’s occasional experimentation on the squirrels’ part or simply a food of last resort, I don’t know, but everything I read said that no birds eat the seeds. On the other hand, the hummingbirds adore them, and the fact that they bloom earlier than many flowers is all to the good for those birds.

  5. Good thing you stopped to speak with the ranger. This one seem an unusual looking flower, but very colorful and distinctive.

    1. I can be a chatty sort, and I’ve found that rangers, game wardens, and such tend to be delighted when someone asks questions — especially when the questions suggest at least a bit of knowledge. I was astonished to find that this buckeye’s so cold hardy it can be found as far north as the Dakotas, Minnesota, New York, and Maine. Lo and behold, iNaturalist says they also can be found in southern Quebec and Ontario — maybe you can find one next spring!

    1. It looks rather like a plant that should be in a truly tropical garden, doesn’t it? I was surprised beyond words to learn that it can be happy quite far north.

  6. What oddly shaped flowers! Very tubular. I can see why they’re popular with the long tongued ones — some butterflies, and certainly hummingbirds.

    1. I suspect that hummingbird moths might enjoy them as much as hummingbirds. They do have a shape that recalls everything from red sages to Lobelia. Well, and those wonderful yellow and red Columbines. If I were a hummingbird, I’d certainly pay a visit! I found these at the end of their bloom, so I’m eager for another look at them next spring.

  7. Wow! THAT was worth the trip!
    Gini and I were just talking about no matter how often we visit a particular place we still find something surprising.

    Speaking of surprising, turns out this beauty grows just north of us! Who knew? Marked the calendar for next spring.
    I hope to someday grow up and be able to photograph a flower so well. Very nicely done!

    And now, I have an urge for Candy Corn, which usually only manifests at Halloween.

    1. Aren’t they pretty flowers? And to think they come with a nice shrub as a base, and cold tolerance to boot! I can’t wait to walk that trail later in the year, just to see what it looks like. It’s at the far end of the park, near the river, and I suspect it will be terrifically attractive.

      I had a bit of trouble with the photos, thanks to strong midday light and strong winds that were changing that light every ten seconds — but they worked out all right, and I was so pleased to have a new discovery. You’re sure right about that candy corn. I hadn’t thought about that in terms of a flower; I always am reminded of it when I come across a Moorhen!

  8. I visited someone a few miles from here to photograph his native lupines and while there saw a Buckeye Tree that is probably related to this shrub. I don’t remember the specific common name for the tree, just that Buckeye was the second word. It did have some impressive flowers and idiot that I am I just remarked on it but did not photograph. Next spring like you are planning.
    They are interesting flowers and quite arresting. Looking forward to your future images.

    1. This one grows in your area, but there’s also the Ohio Buckeye (Aesculus glabra) which is a much larger tree. It’s not native in your area by the maps, but I’ll bet it grows there. It has pretty flowers, too. This one can be found in Ontario and Maine, so it’s not surprising that it’s in your state. I hope you come across it at some point. I suspect it’s quite something when it’s just coming into bloom.

      1. Yes, Ohio Buckeye which makes sense considering the college sports teams’ nickname. He said it wasn’t native and bought it from the midwest. Good sleuthing.

        1. It didn’t take much sleuthing. Remember my midwestern background? Every Christmas we would make a candy called ‘buckeyes,’ a chocolate-dipped confection that resembled the seeds of the trees.

    1. Yep — they’re in the same genus, but obviously quite different. Did you make buckeye candy at Christmas? Even we in Iowa knew about those little treats — and yet I never knew until I “met” this plant that they got their name because people thought the seeds looked like the eyes of a buck deer.

    1. And I’d never heard of the Mexican Buckeye. It turns out it’s in an entirely different genus, and doesn’t enjoy our coastal conditions at all. It’s another testament to the size and variety of our state!

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