Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Buckeyes and Horse Chestnuts
Nature Bulletin No. 266-A   April 22, 1967
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Richard B. Ogilvie, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

Most children know Longfellow's poem which begins: "Under the spreading chestnut tree the village smithy stands"; but few people know that, actually, the tree which inspired it was a horse chestnut. The native buckeyes and their imported relatives, the horse chestnuts, are much different from the true chestnut but among them are some of our finest street and shade trees. They belong to a family which includes kinds that are large, some that are medium-sized or small, and some that are only shrubs. They are notable for their dense foliage of large toothed leaves, their upstanding showy "candles" of flowers in spring, and their peculiar fruit or nuts. The flowers are white, yellow, red or varicolored, according to the species. The leaves, growing upon thick branchlets which have no fine twigs, have from 3 to 9 large leaflets set upon the end of a long stem like the spread fingers of a human hand .

There are several species of buckeyes native in the United States. Best known is the Ohio Buckeye found on the west slopes of the Appalachians and through the Ohio and Mississippi valley regions. There are a few along Thorn Creek in the southeastern corner of Cook County. It is the state tree of Ohio, the Buckeye State. It is also called the Fetid Buckeye because the twigs, leaves and even the bark, when bruised, have a disagreeable odor. Generally, the tree is of medium height but there are reports of unusual specimens about 100 feet tall and 4 feet in diameter. The leaves have 5 long oval leaflets with long points. The pale yellow-green flowers are in dense branched upright dusters which stand from 4 to 6 inches in height. The fruit has a warty brown shell which encloses from 1 to 3 shiny mahogany-colored seeds usually an inch or more in diameter. The tree probably got its common name, buckeye, from the fact that the nut, on one side, has a large pale-colored spot and is presumed to resemble the eye of a deer.

These seeds have a very disagreeable taste and are said to be poisonous, although hogs sometimes eat them and in pioneer days they were ground and mixed with soft soap to make a medicine which was supposed to be a remedy for hog cholera. There were also superstitions that carrying a buckeye in one's pocket brought good luck and warded off rheumatism. When ground and baked, they make an excellent library paste. Buckeye wood is very light, soft, weak and white -- resembling basswood and as easily worked. Following the Civil War, it was much used for making artificial limbs and caskets. Its principal uses now are for wooden ware, drawing boards, crates, boxes and paper pulp.

The Yellow Buckeye, or Sweet Buckeye, is not as widely distributed but is very similar. It lacks some of the disagreeable odor of the Ohio buckeye; its flowers are yellow and more showy; and its seeds are enclosed in a smooth shell. In our southern states there are other native buckeyes which are small trees or shrubs with handsome flowers of deep red, red and yellow, or scarlet and yellow.

Several kinds of horse chestnuts have been introduced into the United States, including some from Japan, China, and the Himalayas. The Common Horse Chestnut, which lines the boulevards of Paris, is a native of Greece and Bulgaria. It was brought to this country at an early date and has been extensively used as a shade tree and street tree. It has a very symmetrical shape and its flowers, which are white tinged with red, grow in clusters from 8 to 12 inches tall. Its leaf has from 5 to 7 leaflets and the fruit is similar to that of the Ohio Buckeye.

Small boys like buckeyes for slingshot ammunition.

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