Nut Trees - Horse Chestnuts, Buckeyes
( Originally Published 1927 )
Aesculus Hippocastanum, Linn.
At the head of this family stands a stately tree, native of the mountains of northern Greece and Asia Minor, which was introduced into European parks and planted there as an avenue tree when landscape gardening came into vogue. By way of England it came to America, and in Eastern villages one often sees a giant horse-chestnut, perhaps the sole remnant of the street planting of an earlier day.
Longfellow's "spreading chestnut tree" was a horse-chestnut. And the boys who watched the smith at his work doubtless filled their pockets with the shiny brown nuts and played the game of "conquerors" every autumn as regularly as they flew their kites in spring. What boy has not tied a chestnut to each end of a string, whirled them round and round at a bewildering rate of speed and finally let them fly to catch on telegraph wires, where they dangle for months and bother tidy folks?
The glory of the horse-chestnut comes at blooming time, when the upturning branches, like arms of candelabra, are each tipped with a white blossom-cluster, pointed like a candle flame. Each flower of the pyramid has its throat-dashes of yellow and red, and the curving yellow stamens are thrust far out of the dainty ruffled border of the corolla.
Bees and wasps make music in the tree-top, sucking the nectar out of the flowers. Unhappily for us humans, caterpillars of the leopard and tussock moths feed upon the tender tissues of this tree, defacing the foliage and making the whole tree unsightly by their presence.
Sidewalks under horse-chestnut trees are always littered with something the tree is dropping. In early spring the shiny, wax-covered leaf buds cast off and they stick to slate and cement most tenaciously. Scarcely have the folded leaflets spread, tent-like, before some of them, damaged by wind or late frosts or insects' injury, begin to curl and drop, and as the leaves attain full size, they crowd, and this causes continual shedding. In early autumn the leaflets begin to be cast, the seven fingers gradually loosening from the end of the leaf-stalk; then comes a day when all of the foliage mass lets go, and one may wade knee deep under the tree in the dead leaves. The tree is still ugly from clinging leaf-stems and the slow breaking of the prickly husks that enclose the nuts.
With all these faults, the horse-chestnut holds its popularity in the suburbs of great cities, for it lives despite smoke and soot. Bushey Park in London has five rows of these trees on either side of a wide avenue. When they are in bloom the fact is announced in the newspapers and all London turns out to see the sight. Paris uses the tree extensively; nearly twenty thousand of them line her streets, and thrive despite the poverty of the soil.
The American buckeyes are less sturdy in form and less showy in flower than the European species, but they have the horse-shoe print with the nails in it where the leaf-stalk meets the twig. The brown nuts, with the dull white patch which fastens them in the husk, justifies the name "buckeye." One nibble at the nut will prove to any one that, as a fruit, it is too bitter for even horses. Bitter, astringent bark is characteristic of the family.
The Ohio Buckeye Ae. glabra, Wilid.
The Ohio buckeye has five yellow-green leaflets, smooth when full grown, pale, greenish yellow flowers, not at all conspicuous, and bitter nuts in spiny husks. The whole tree exhales a strong, disagreeable odor. The wood is peculiarly adapted to the making of artificial limbs.
The great abundance of this little tree in the Ohio Valley accounts for Ohio being called the "Buckeye State."
The Sweet Buckeye Ae. octandra, Marsh.
The sweet buckeye is a handsome, large tree with greenish yellow, tubular flowers and leaves of five slender, elliptical leaflets. Cattle will eat the nuts and paste made from them is preferred by bookbinders; it holds well, and book-loving insects will not attack it. These trees grow on mountain slopes of the Alleghanies from western Pennsylvania southward, and west to Iowa and Texas.
The California Buckeye Ae. californica, Nutt.
The California buckeye spreads wide branches from a squat trunk, and clothes its sturdy twigs with unmistakable horse-chestnut leaves and pyramids of white flowers. Sometimes these are tinted with rose, and the tree is very beautiful. The brown nuts are irregular in shape and en-closed in somewhat pear-shaped, two-valved husks.
This western buckeye follows the borders of streams from the Sacramento Valley southward; they are largest north of San Francisco Bay, in the canyons of the Coast Range.
Shrubby, red-flowered buckeyes, often seen in gardens and in the shrubbery borders of parks, are horticultural crosses between the European horse-chestnut and a shrubby, red-flowered native buckeye that occurs in the lower Mississippi Valley.