"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.