Buckeye is fairly common in our area, normally found in mountain hollows along with yellow poplar, beech and other moisture loving trees. It is one of the species used to indicate a very diverse forest type called mixed mesophytic, the most diverse forest type in the United States, and second only to the tropical rain forests on the planet. It’s found only in portions of the Appalachian Mountains, including ours.
Buckeye got its name from its seed, which is a shiny brown nut with a large pale spot that reminded someone of the eyeball of a deer. Yellow buckeye (Aesculus octandra), also called sweet buckeye, is the species found in our area. It is easy to identify by its leaf, which is compound and made up of five leaflets that attach to the leaf stem at one point, splaying out like fingers on a hand. The bark of buckeye is dull white to beige in color, smooth when young, but later forming flat thin plates. The twigs of buckeye are thicker than most trees, with a large bud forming in the winter that is easy to see from the ground. Buckeye has showy yellow leaves in the fall, which drop off early.
The buckeye fruit is formed in a thick 3-sided husk. The shiny nut is pleasing to look at, but beware that they are poisonous to humans and domestic farm animals. Young leaves and shoots also have the same poisonous property, which is one reason to keep cattle out of the woods. Squirrels somehow are able to eat the nuts and get away with it. Some folklore contends that some portion of the nut is not poisonous and the squirrels are able to smell the edible portion. I’m undecided on this theory, but I have never seen a buckeye totally eaten, usually half or better is left, which makes one wonder. Indians were able to consume the nut by roasting, pealing, and mashing the meat, then leaching the resulting meal with water for several days to eliminate the glucoside chemical poison. The nuts are carried in the pockets of Kentuckians for luck and by Ohioans for rheumatism.
Buckeye wood is not considered good for lumber, being soft and rather weak. It is a popular carving wood for hobbyist and is used for crate material due to its light weight. The woods softness was popular with early pioneers for carving bowls, spoons, and other kitchenware.