On Gardening: Red Buckeye bloom in rhythm with hummingbird's return

April 6, 2015

The native red buckeye blooms are beautiful and timed perfectly for the return of the hummingbirds.

The southern roadside and forest are alive with the spectacular blooms of the red buckeye, Aesculus pavia. You have to admit it is pretty amazing how nature times blooming in sequence with the return of the hummingbirds. Last year I wrote about the coral honeysuckle that is also blooming now, and both are providing nectar to the first hummingbirds of the year.

The red buckeye is hardy in zones 4-8 and is native from Texas to Illinois to Ohio and down the eastern seaboard to Florida. It excels as an early bloomer in the backyard wildlife habitat, where it feeds hummingbirds and bees.

To me the plants are showiest when grown in a morning sun, afternoon shade situation. They also thrive as understory plants much like a dogwood or eastern redbud. There is a yellow form called flavescens that stands out even more in the shady environment.

As is typical of native plants it will take a little searching on your part to locate your source. As mentioned, morning sun and afternoon shade is ideal. Beds that are fertile, moist but well-drained are preferred. Prepare a bed for the red buckeye and companion shrubs by incorporating 3 to 4 inches of organic matter and 2 pounds of a 5-10-5 fertilizer per 100 square feet of planting area, tilling deeply.

Donít skimp on the hole! Dig the planting hole two to three times as wide as the rootball but no deeper. Place the buckeye in the hole, and backfill with soil to two-thirds the depth. Tamp the soil and water to settle, add the remaining backfill, repeat the process and apply mulch. This will allow for the quickest root-expansion and acclimation to your garden.

Be sure to keep a good 3- to 4-inch layer of mulch, particularly in the summer. While it is considered a medium water user, know that droughty conditions usually mean a less than ideal specimen. Treat it like an azalea from the standpoint of mulch and moisture. While it is recommended throughout its native range by wildflower and native plant societies, it does come with a warning label to teach children that the seeds are poisonous.

Most that I have seen over the years are 10 to 15 feet tall and as wide and are perfect for the edge of woodland gardens. They are deciduous, but donít let this be a detraction. If you are simply growing them for the beauty of the 6- to 10-inch panicles of flowers and large deep green palmate leaves, then consider partnering with white azaleas and viburnums, forsythia and late-blooming daffodils and yellow tulips.

In the backyard wildlife habitat, consider growing in partnership with the yellow form of coral honeysuckle called John Clayton. This would give you an incredible plant combination along with the best of early hummingbirds feeding. Those of you living in zones 6-8 might consider the yellow native azalea Rhododendron austrinum. Most donít consider azaleas for the backyard wildlife habitat, but the The Xerces Society recognizes it as valuable to bumblebees.

Names like red buckeye, scarlet buckeye and firecracker flower indeed give reference to the beauty of this native shrub or small tree. The fact that it feeds hummingbirds and bees, too, makes it extra special and worthy of a place in your landscape.



Associated Press