Saturday, October 12, 2013


     MY WORDS ON TREES, and especially the most minor mention of the buckeye tree, always seem to hit a happy note with readers of this blog. Who knew so many of you loved that tree?
    Elders have recited their own childhood memories of those trees, particularly the large, shiny chestnut-brown fruit with the light circular "eye" that earned the name "buck eye" from our Native Americans, who thought it looked like the eye of a buck (male) deer.
    Some of you have recalled collecting buckeyes, like the man who admitted, "It was mostly just for the sake of collecting them. I kept them in a large paper grocery bag, only to throw them awayin the next buckeye season, when I'd start collecting them all over again... Pointless? Maybe. Obviously I didn't think so at the time."
     Another reader told me he would use a nail to punch a hole in the eye portion of the nut, to attach an old shoe lace so he could carry the nut in a belt loop for good luck. According to this reader, "The buckeye was supposed to be as good an amulet as the lucky rabbit-foot many people carried around as good luck charms in those days."
    That seemed to dovetail with another reader's memory of his grandfather's belief that a buckeye in your pocket would assure a plentiful supply of pocket money."So I always carried one," the man declared. "And I always did have money in my pocket, though it was probably because I also always had a paper route."
    Some of you mentioned the childhood "buckeye wars." That tells me you remember, as I do, that buckeyes were good fodder for sling shots, and kids then sometimes also threw buckeyes at each other from behind trees and other hiding places. One reader added that she doesn't recall anyone  being injured in this way. "Still," she conjectured, "such a thing as buckeyes or sling shots or pea-shooters today would no doubt get you written up at school on a weapons charge."
     Another woman said her parents and grandparents firmly believed the bitter buckeye nut could relieve arthritis, rheumatism and "lumbago," but she wasn't able to recall just how they took that "medicine." (The leaf and bark are slightly poisonous, but Native Americans did bleach and cook small amounts as food ingredients and for curative potions, and they strung buckeyes on leather string to wear around their necks as protective amulets).
     OUR BUCKEYE CONVERSATIONS have made for fine nostalgia. But a city filled with large old buckeye trees is a streetscape of the past; I suppose that might be partly because the buckeye-litter in the fall made so much work for property owners. These days, if you see buckeye trees, you are probably looking at a smaller hybridized version that isn't quite so messy.
     As they matured, the buckeye trees of our own childhoods were far too big for today's city yards. They could not possibly compare, for instance, to the huge old buckeye on the high property the old Wilcox mansion on the southwest corner of Liberty and High Streets in my hometown. That tree towered over that large structure (which was later demolished to accomodate a nursing facility).
    Just that one big buckeye tree seemed to shade the entire large property, though its leaves let in enough sunlight that, on a breezy day, I found it magical to sit on the lawns and watch the sun-and-shadow patterns moving all around me. (I also found out the hard way that, when the tree shed its fruit, enough fell to the porches and sidewalks and steps that you had to be careful not to step on one and roll into an unexpected fall).
      Amid such sentimental memory on the part of so many of us older people, several younger people said they weren't even sure what a buckeye tree was, or what it would look like if they saw one. I checked with such sources as the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and Ohio Division of Forestry, to be sure I was remembering the tree correctly.
     I LEARNED the true Ohio Buckey is Aesculus glabra, the main requirement for which is fertile soil. This tree grows 30 to 50 feet tall with a two-to-two-foot-diameter trunk. Its leaves are grouped in clusters of five leaflets, four to six inches in length, attached at a common point to a long stem. Its stout branches are placed in opposite positioning, giving it a lovely, balanced, rounded shape that allows it to look good even in winter without its leaves. The trunk has an interesting, grey, scaly, plated bark. When in bloom, the branched-flowers are a showy upright cluster of pale white, tinged with greenish yellow.
     This tree was known to some as "the fetid buckeye," or "stinking buckeye." (Don't you OSU fans get angry at me for repeating that; it's merely a fact. As a child, I discovered the truth of that fact when I gathered a buckeye-flower bouquet for my mom. It was glorious in its vase, but it stunk up the entire room. Mom transferred it to the porch, but we still couldn't bear to sit near it).
     Then there's the Yellow Buckeye, Aesculus octandra, 60-90 feet tall with a two-to-three foot diameter trunk, also known as sweet buckeye or large buckeye. Ohio Division of Wildlife says this tree is difficult to distinguish from the Ohio Buckeye. It prefers the bottomlands along rivers and streams, and also grows in high locations.
      Both trees leaf out in spring before most other trees, and its leaves drop earlier in the fall. From the autumns of my childhood, I distinctly recall the joy of getting an early start on the leaf season, stomping and jumping through great piles of crisp, fallen buckeye leaves that gleamed in such a brilliant orange-to-red that I sometimes imagined I would be able to see their color in the dark.
     THE BUCKEYE HAS real history in Ohio. Our settlers found the wood to be lightweight, readily split and easily carved or whittled, and so they used it to make utensils, furniture, crates, pallets and caskets. It was also widely used for artificial legs, and thin-planed strips of buckeye wood were also woven to make hats and baskets.
     Ohio became known as the Buckeye State when Gen. William H. Harrison ran for President in 1840. An opposition newspaper scoffed that Harrison was little more than an "Ohio buckeye, suited only to hard cider, log cabins and raccoon hunting," Harrison gleefully glommed onto those symbols and made them his own. His supporters carved and carried canes of buckeye wood, and Harrison's campaign logo became a log cabin decorated with raccoon skins and a string of buckeyes.  From that point on, we Ohioans were "buckeyes."  
     In Oct. 1953, the Ohio Legislature adopted the buckeye as our state's official state tree, and when Ohio State University was looking for a logo, it originally considered the buck (male) white-tailed deer, then decided instead on the buckeye nut itself.
     ANOTHER BUCKEYE MEMORY:  Years ago, when visiting in the state of Washington years ago, I spotted an Ohio buckeye growing improbably in a water-side park. An elderly gentleman informed me it had been donated and planted years ago by a transplanted Ohioan. The tree made fine fodder for conversation, the northwesterner said.
     "When I run into an out-of-state visitor to our lovely little park," he told me with a chuckle, "I always ask where the visitor is from. If I hear the word Ohio, I point to the tree and explain that it is a symbol of Ohio, and especially of OSU... I tell the visitor the buckeye is a nut that grows on a tree with stinky bark, stinky twigs and stinky flowers; and the buckeye nut itself is stinky and useless and as shiny as a bald Ohio head, and is poisonous and inedible except to squirrels...
     "Now," he concluded genially as he peered down at me, "Where are YOU from?" When I told him, he broke quickly into laughter. "Oops, I forgot," he apologized. "I usually ask that FIRST."
     That led to a hilarious conversation between us. All because of an "alien" buckeye tree that had sunk its roots into a new place and had waited all those years to greet me.
(My valley property bears a lot of trees, but as hard as I have looked, I have not yet found one buckeye. If you, too, wish to "dish" about buckeyes, direct your comments to me at I'll happily share your memories through this blog, unless you ask me not to do that).

ATTACHED PHOTO of buckeye nut, courtesy Ohio Div. of Forestry