Last week, Tom deHaas and Ann Channon wrote a great BYGL article titled “Not all Buckeyes are Created Equal. Which is Which??” https://bygl.osu.edu/node/1970. The writing intent was to help identify the different species of Aesculus; naturally, these trees are all lumped together under the common identifier of “Buckeyes”- because after all, who doesn’t love Ohio or the Ohio State Buckeyes or Brutus Buckeye? One true “buckeye” that is in my landscape and I absolutely love is Aesculus pavia or Red Buckeye (RB) or as it is affectionately known by horticultural nerds living in Ohio… the “Scarlet” buckeye! Another common name for this small tree is “firecracker plant” due to the stacked, showy red flowers, which suggest firecrackers.
The RB is a native tree found growing as far north as Illinois and Ohio, thriving south through North Carolina to northern Florida, and then growing as far west as central Texas. Aesculus pavia is often called a handsome shrub or small tree and it can be both. Remember the distinction between shrub and tree is often height, 12-15 feet for shrubs and 15 feet or more for trees; additionally, multi-stemmed is more often associated with shrubs, while single stem is more indicative of a tree.
The RB is a wonderfully small, slow-growing tree in a landscape setting that will eventually reach 15-20 feet in height with a crown spread of 15-20 feet. This beautiful little tree prefers moist, well-drained soils with adequate organic matter and acid soil pH but is adaptable to pH’s slightly above neutral (6.8-7.2).
RB placed in full sun landscape sites, forms a densely branched tree with a rounded crown; however, if sited in a partially shaded landscape setting, the crown may be less densely branched, be more open and irregular. The palmately compound leaves are smooth with a lustrous, deep-green upper surface while the lower surface is whitish-green and either completely glabrous or slightly pubescent. The typical 5 leaflets (rarely 7) making up the compound leaf are often irregular, fine double-serrated margins.
RB flowers are stunning and I have been watching mine evolve from the bud for over 3 weeks now! These very showy panicles, more botanically correct to call them “thyrses”, are a brilliant deep red with tubular flowers appearing like pillars of scarlet flame on branch tips in Spring. These flower pillars of scarlet are 6-10 inches long with the individual flowers being 1-1.5 inches long. Flowers of the typical Aesculus pavia have another neat feature, in that the tubular flowers with their exserted stamens are pollinated by ruby-throated hummingbirds! That’s another scarlet for you!! Okay, don’t wait any longer… It’s time to get OUT, get SCARLET and GET YOUR BUCKEYE… ON!!