National Geographic : 1955 Nov
Pioneers Found a Friend in Sturdy Buckeye (State Tree of Ohio) TAMING the wilderness beyond the Alle ghenies, ax-swinging settlers found a fine tree they dubbed the Ohio buckeye because its shiny brown nut with a white spot resembles the eye of a buck, or stag. Scientists later called the species Aesculus glabra. Ohio has affectionately adopted the tree, whose homely name, sharp as the echoed crack of a rifle, now designates the Buckeye State. From earliest pioneer days the tree has been associated with Ohio, which was admitted to the Union in 1803, only 15 years after its first permanent white settlement. Transplanted Early in Europe The buckeye soon found its way from North America to Germany. Botanist Karl Ludwig Willdenow (1765-1812) studied a specimen in the Berlin Botanic Garden and published the accepted scientific name, Aesculus glabra Willd., in 1809. Ohio buckeye is a medium-size to rather small tree, with many resemblances to the horse chestnut introduced from Europe. Its native range reaches from southwestern Pennsylvania through West Virginia, Ken tucky, and Tennessee to northern Alabama and northeastern Mississippi. Skipping the lower Mississippi Valley, the tree grows from northeastern Texas through eastern Oklahoma and Kansas and the six southeasternmost counties of Nebraska to southern Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. Typical buckeye habitat is the rich moist Page 670 - Settlers Fashioned Pails and Cradles from the Versatile Buckeye The gray or ashy bark on older buckeye trees may thicken to three-fourths of an inch. Rather soft and corklike when young, the bark later grows rough, deeply grooved, and scaly. When bruised it emits a disagreeable odor, giving rise to such local names as "fetid buckeye" and "stinking buckeye." Buckeye buds (not shown) are among the first to open in the spring; they quickly grow to a length of about two inches. Even when dormant the immature leaves can be readily detected within the buds. Full grown leaves, in pairs, are parted into five rather narrow, finely toothed leaflets. Following the leaves, the pale greenish-yellow flowers appear in April or early May, bursting forth in terminal panicles about four to six inches long. Buckeye's lustrous seeds, or nuts, are favorite souvenirs of small boys. A prickly capsule holding the fruit splits open at maturity. © National Geographic Society Paintings by National Geographic Artist Walter A. Weber soils of stream banks and bottom lands. The trees are more picturesque than graceful. The branches at first tend to curve downward, the lowest often reaching quite close to the ground, as if their weight were greater than their strength; then almost at the last moment they sweep upward. The stout, reddish-brown twigs follow a similar pattern. The "champion" Ohio buckeye listed by the American Forestry Association stands in Elyria, Ohio, with a height of 90 feet, a 60 foot spread, and a breast-high circumference of 8 feet 1 inch. Such measurements are by no means common; more normally the buck eye stands only about half as high. The tree grows most abundantly in the Tennessee River Valley. Buckeye wood is light (with a specific gravity of about 0.33), straight-grained, soft, weak, whitish or grayish, and odorless. Chief use of the wood is for furniture, boxes and crates, caskets, signs, trunks and valises, and toys. Before the general use of light metals, buckeye was in demand, because of its light ness and ease of turning, for artificial limbs. Its lack of odor and light color make it suit able for food containers. During pioneer times it was shredded into fibers for plaiting homemade summer hats. Indians Boiled Nuts for Food Early settlers concocted a medicinal extract of the bark, but it is not a recognized drug. The nuts, or seeds, contain toxic glucosides, which act as severe irritants to the nervous system; livestock has been poisoned by eating either the nuts or the tree's foliage. After repeated boiling, however, these glucosides break down into harmless substances. Nuts so treated were a food source for American Indians. In contrast with its relative, the Old World horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum), which has shiny and resinous buds, the win ter buds of Ohio buckeye are smooth and pale brown outside with reddish scales inside. This typical smoothness of buds and leaves, too, suggested glabra (smooth, or hairless) for the specific name. But there's nothing smooth about the spiky, nut-housing capsules which eventually fall to earth. You have been warned: don't go barefoot under the buckeye tree.