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.