Horse chest­nuts of­fer beauty in spring and fod­der for squir­rels

Alberta Gardener Magazine - - Local Dirt - By Dorothy Dob­bie

If you’re look­ing for a fab­u­lous tree to add to your pri­vate for­est in Al­berta, con­sider Ohio Buck­eye, (Aes­cu­lus glabra). A mem­ber of the horse chestnut fam­ily, it is not a true chestnut. This lovely tree will grow 30 to 50 feet tall (taller in the more tem­per­ate parts of the coun­try). It is nicely formed, with a dome-shaped crown and large (4 to 6 inches long) pal­mate, com­pound leaves (five to seven) with ser­rated edges. Its crown width at ma­tu­rity has a 20- to 35-foot spread. One of the first trees to leaf out in spring, its fall colour is orange to red. It grows well in shade.

The bark is smooth and cool gray when the tree is young, but over time it de­vel­ops thick, ashy gray, fur­rowed plates on its two- to three-foot-di­am­e­ter ma­ture trunk. Ma­tu­rity takes 60 to 80 years to reach. The tree does not be­gin to pro­duce seeds, which ripen in Septem­ber-oc­to­ber, un­til it is eight years old.

Ohio Buck­eye is the state flower of Ohio, where it oc­curs nat­u­rally, but it can be suc­cess­fully grown in Al­berta, if you plant it away from north or north-west win­ter winds. It is avail­able at lo­cal gar­den cen­tres. It likes a damp site in rich, fer­tile but al­ka­line soil. When plant­ing, dig a big, wide hole and amend the soil you re­moved from the ground to dig the hole with a bit of or­ganic ma­te­rial such as leaf mould or com­post. The re­ward will be a glo­ri­ous show of pale white to green­ish-yel­low, four- to six-inch clus­ters of flow­ers that stand up on the branches like can­dles on a Christ­mas tree.

The flow­ers are fol­lowed by two-inch seed cap­sules or “nuts” in a spiny, al­though not sharp, cas­ing. Na­tive Amer­i­cans thought the glossy, chestnut brown nuts which have cir­cu­lar tawny mark­ings, re­sem­bled the eyes of the male deer and so the name buck­eye was given to the tree. The spe­cific ep­i­thet, Aes­cu­lus, was given to the tree for the Aes­cu­lapius (or As­cle­pius), the Greco-ro­man god of medicine.

In times past, buck­eye nuts were con­sid­ered a good luck charm and were used (cooked and made into a paste) to re­lieve arthritic and rheumatic pain. Early set­tlers also mashed the nuts into a meal to sup­ple­ment their di­ets when other sup­plies were low, but if you’re think­ing of do­ing this, be sure that the meat is thor­oughly cooked. The nuts, leaves and bark are poi­sonous in their raw state. In­ges­tion can cause mus­cle weak­ness, paral­y­sis, stom­ach cramps, vom­it­ing and even death in most an­i­mals. Squir­rels are an ex­cep­tion.

These neg­a­tives aside, Ohio buck­eye is a lovely tree that would grace any gar­den. The flow­ers are spec­tac­u­lar and will steal the show away from or­na­men­tal crabs, plums or cher­ries. Prune it in early spring be­fore it leafs out.

Dorothy Dob­bie is the owner and founder of Man­i­toba Gar­dener mag­a­zine. See more at lo­cal­gar­, She broad­casts a weekly gar­den­ing show on CJNU 93.7 FM Sun­day morn­ings at 8.

Buck­eye flow­ers.

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