Tuesday, April 19, 2011


I remember the morning on the Jack's Fork River when my colleague yelled at me from the top of the hill. He went out to look for morels after I gave up my search empty handed and returned to my queenly spot in the front of the canoe to drink wine.

"You're not going to believe this..."

I quickly climbed back out, and reached the crest of the ridge. I saw it, too, among phlox and the last of the anemones, a red buckeye in full, breathtaking flower. In Shannon County, no less. Known from the southeastern part of Missouri, red buckeye is the signature plant for Crowley's Ridge, the gem of April woods, and I hadn't seen one since I left the Bootheel. I certainly wasn't expecting a red buckeye on a float on the upper Jack's Fork.

Back home, I checked the 1963 Flora of Missouri to find that red buckeye is known from Carter and Oregon counties, down in Eleven Point River country, but in 1963 the hidden little cove along the Jack's Fork wasn't listed as a known location for red buckeye. What a gem. No morels that day, but a red buckeye, box turtles eating mayapples, and riverbanks chocked full of flowering bluebells. April on the upper Jack's Fork is truly magical. The early spring green of white oaks and hickories make the scenery even better than in fall.

No less stunning, however, is the yellow flowering Ohio buckeye, the more common Missouri species. In the Ozarks, there are four varieties of Aesculus glabra, and two forms of one variety. Taxonomy can be a little annoying, especially when you're in the field with someone who's not very familiar with Ozark woodlands and he insists on thinking that every plant could possibly be one of thousands from international boundaries, even though it's pretty obvious it's one of 6 species that always show up in Ozark woodlands. But I was intrigued by the range map from the 1963 Flora to see the distribution of the different forms and varieties. If I wasn't on a casual meander with my dad last week, I may have taken note of the underside of the leaves, the color of the bark, the number of leaflets on each stalk of the multiple buckeyes along the trail.

It wasn't until later that weekend that I learned that we were in a location where three varieties of buckeye can appear. Alas, I didn't take note of any of that. I just took a picture of the flower, which is in full bloom and very pretty. I don't know which one I saw, and for some reason, that frustrates me a little. Not too much, just a little.

Here's the range map and the truncated guide from Steyermark 63 to the different buckeyes you'll find in the Ozarks. Click on the illustration below to enlarge the photo to see the miniscule little tick marks that represent the different varieties and forms, then take note what the characteristics are below and you won't be in the position I'm in tonight:

A. glabra var. arguta: Leaflets mainly 7, rarely 8-11, or 6; leaflets mainly 1-3 cm wide

A. glabra var. glabra: Leaflets mainly 5, rarely 6 or 7; leaflets mainly 3-8 cm. wide

A. glabra var. glabra f. pallida: most common form in Missouri. Lower surface of mature leaflets densely or lightly hairy

A. glabra var. glabra f. glabra: Lower surface of mature leaflets green, bark dark gray

A. glabra var. leucodermis: Less common, lower surface of mature leaflets usually strongly whitened or pale; bark pale or nearly whitish

Buckeyes like fire, so you'll find them in woodlands that have been managed with fire. They're commonly found in more mesic conditions, often along streambanks, on north slopes in dry, rocky woods. Lucky for the buckeye, deer do not find their twigs very palatable; we logged only 5 plants out of 109 that were clipped off by deer in one tract of deer-problem woods I surveyed this February.

The seeds are big, burly, and brown and resemble a doe's eye (or a buck, of course). Julian Steyermark tells us that it may not be a wise idea to feed buckeyes to children (but research shows that fox squirrels manage eating them just fine):

The shining, large, dark brown seeds are poisonous when eaten by children, livestock, and domestic animals....The seeds are rendered harmless after boiling or roasting, and were eaten by Native Americans as a starchy meal after being roasted.

Steyermark continues in his entry on red buckeye that the seeds were likely a precursor to Rotenone:

The powdered seeds and crushed branches of A. pavia, when placed in ponds or slow water, have been used to catch fish, which become stupefied and float to the surface.

How sporting!


Nickelplate said...

I didn't know we had so many kinds of buckeyes here. I just thought we had Ohio and Red. Last year, I planted some buckeyes from a local source, and this year, I have one little seedling coming up. It'll be ready for transplant by next year. Should I start a population of red buckeye in howell county, or just leave it alone?

Allison Vaughn said...

I would recommend burning your woods and see if they show up on their own...
Thanks for staying in touch, by the way.

Nickelplate said...

Burning is looking more and more attractive. I hear that morels come up much better from burned areas too. When is the best time to burn in the woods and in fields? I understand that different times will yield different results?

Anonymous said...

There is nothing more spectacular than a hillside full of A. pavia in full bloom!

I have seen this species in Taney Co. near the Arkansas border (along Fox Creek at Mincy-Drury Cons. Area) - even collected dead branches and reared a few wood-boring beetles from them.

all my best--ted

Allison Vaughn said...

Fire regimes should be diverse--burn at different times of the year for different results, but never repeatedly for the same result. When resource managers in missouri began implementing rx fire, they burned religiously in march or april. The woods and glades looked great, and restoration is most effective with spring fires. I won't recommend beginning fire regimes in Dec-Jan or, if you have an existing exotics problem, I wouldn't recommend a fall fire. Spring fires are good for exotics problems, and for opening the understory, i.e., killing trees or putting them in the hospital. We can talk about your property and see what would work best for you. It all depends on the site. Yes to fire, the most effective way to manage natural resources in Missouri.