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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