• California Buckeye, always one season ahead

    by  • March 24, 2011 • Plant Profiles, Sierra Foothills

    … or, how I discovered Buckeye ‘bulbs’.

    California Buckeye, Aesculus californica, is always ahead of the season,…first to leaf out in late Winter, first to lose its leaves in summer, surprisingly, making it look quite dead in Fall.  Always one step ahead…and that’s how to identify it! The buckeye was the first tree that piqued my interest when we first arrived here, even before our home was built.

    Our home in the trailer. We worked daily on painting, tiling and clean up.

    Our home in the trailer. We worked daily on painting, tiling and clean up around the house. No, thats not the house, thats the goat shed beyond.

    On a Fall sanity break, Tractor Man and I, in the middle of our ‘trailer period’ (the time after we moved here to the mountain and before the house was ready), took a drive north and east of Pine Flat Lake.  On a back road off Hwy 168, we walked half a mile or so to a seasonal waterfall to take a picture.

    Mystery 'bulbs'

    Mystery bulbs

    My ever searching eye spotted a dozen shiny, brown bulbs dropped on the ground, seemingly from nowhere.  Looking sort of like daffodil bulbs, I gathered them up, took them home and planted them all by a big rock, thinking for certain, since they looked so healthy, they’d surely be some kind of wild bulby flower.

    I’m positive my face fell when the neighbors told me that they’d surely be buckeye seeds and to not waste time planting them, as they grew wild all over the hills. “They are as common as dirt”, they said.

    Buckeye, through the Seasons


    Getting a jump on Spring, California Buckeye, Aesculus californica, leafs out in mid-February with bright green, palm-shaped leaves on smooth white branches. Beautiful in all its seasons this California native is perfectly adapted to our summer dry climate.  Growing wide, 15-20 feet, this deciduous,  multi-trunked tree grows to 15 feet tall with a rounded shapely, open habit. You will see it where the redbud and manzanita grow thickly.

    Buckeye leafs out early in February

    Buckeye leafs out early in February



    Buckeye in bloom

    Buckeye in bloom

    By Spring, Buckeye is fully leafed out and in May is covered in hundreds of creamy white candle shaped blossoms which attract hummingbirds, butterflies and native bees.

    In May, buckeye blooms along with Clarkia, 'farewell to spring'

    In May, buckeye blooms along with Clarkia, farewell to spring

    It blooms at the same time as the Clarkia amoena, called aptly Farewell to Spring and the Cercis occidentalis, Western Redbud, in a legendary “riot of color”. This is the height of the motorcycle and sports car touring season in the foothills, and for good reason.


    Buckeyes lose their leaves in mid summer to survive the foothills’ long, dry season. The trunk and branches, lacking any leaves, add a structural element to the home garden. Along the roadsides in July, the buckeyes become familiar smooth skeletons on the hills of the entire lower Sierra Grey Pine belt, between 1,000 and 3,000 feet in elevation.  Because they never blend in with other bushes and trees, visitors comment on them, asking,” What are those trees?”

    Toyon against the snowy white Buckeye

    Toyon against the snowy white Buckeye

    Buckeyes are impressive in their deciduous phase with smooth, almost white bark, gleaming against the green of the toyon and scrub oak.


    Native to dry, rocky foothills and valleys in California, the Buckeye is found in scattered groves in the foothill woodland and chaparral regions, generally below where the Ponderosa Pine grows.

    Buckeye seedpods

    Buckeye seedpods

    Curious pear shaped fruits, hang from each branch tip, and eventually split their velvety skins, opening to expose large brown shiny seeds, (said to look like a buck’s eye).  These chestnut shaped seeds, a bit larger than avocado seeds (or daffodil bulbs), fall to the ground, where they can be found by squirrels who don’t seem to mind their toxicity or by ‘wild bulb hunters’.

    Velvety skin of the seed pods

    Velvety skin of the seed pods

    Take them home and plant them in a gravelly loose soil, preferably on a slope,…they’ll certainly sprout reliably, just don’t think they are flower bulbs.

    In  late fall, the buckeye, already bare of any green, hides itself among the other leafless vegetation, seeming to lie in wait until it can again spring ahead of the seasons.

    Toxicity to honey bees

    The good question in the comments was raised about buckeyes being toxic to honey bees. Because that is important to this profile, I turn to my expert, Prof. Emeritis Robbin Thorp, Department of Entomology, UC Davis, who  says:
    “Yes, CA Buckeye nectar and/or pollen has long been known to be toxic to honey bees.  It produces a condition referred to as “buckeyed bees”  in which many larvae die producing a spotty brood pattern, the queen may stop laying eggs, some adults emerge with crippled wings or malformed legs and bodies.  This typically occurs when honey bee hives are in an area of mass blooming CA buckeyes and there is little else for them to forage on.  The colonies may become quite weak or die out completely.  The best solution has been to move honey bee hives out of the area of buckeye bloom.  If done early the colonies recover quite nicely.

    A single CA buckeye in a garden is not likely to cause much problem as long as there are plenty of other plants in bloom so that the honey bees are getting a mixed diet and not predominantly buckeye.  However, it would not be a good plant for using in large numbers in restoration or roadside planting projects.  In my opinion, the tree is only attractive for a short period of the year (when in full leaf and bloom) anyway.”

    Many thanks, Prof. Thorp!


    Sue Langley, a passionate gardener and photographer lives and gardens with her husband and Corgi, Maggie on 7 acres just south of Yosemite, Zone 7 at 3000 feet. She also manages the Flea Market Gardening Facebook page and website.