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Keep a little luck in your pocket

I remember as a kid having a buckeye in my pocket. I loved the feel of it in my hand as I reached into my pocket and knew that all was well for having it there. Carrying buckeye seed is an old custom. They were carried as a folk remedy to ward off rheumatism, hemorrhoids and other assorted ailments. But mostly, it was considered a lucky charm. An old saying went, “You’ll never find a dead man with a buckeye in his pocket.”

Our native Red Buckeye (Aesculus pavia) is possibly my favorite landscape plant. Not only for the fond memories of toting its seed in my pocket, but for its beautiful red tubular flowers. It is the first to bloom red in early spring, making it important to returning hummingbirds and the season’s first butterflies.

The common name “buckeye” was derived from the Native Americans who noticed that the glossy, chestnut-brown seed with the lighter circular “eye” looked very similar to the eye of a buck deer. The dark brown seed are large, smooth and take on a rich luster as they harden and are handled. They appear in late summer, contained in a fig-sized leathery pouch.

The fast-growing red buckeye is very easy to grow. The seed will germinate as soon as they ripen. Only fresh seed will germinate, so plant them as soon as they ripen in a moist location in the garden or in a gallon size nursery pot. The root appears in the fall, the shoot the following spring. Seedlings begin flowering within two to three years.

Red buckeye makes an attractive small tree or large shrub and grows best in moist, well-drained soil. It prefers shade or semi-shade but will tolerate full sun if kept mulched and well watered. Use it as an accent or specimen or incorporated into a shrub border. It makes a great companion to oakleaf hydrangea.

There are cultivated varieties available in the nursery trade. ‘Atrosanquinea’ has deeper red flowers; ‘Humilis’ is a low or even prostrate form with red flowers and ‘flavescens’ has yellow flowers. I like the old fashioned one — the one I found in the woods and plucked the seed in the fall of the year.

Even if you don’t carry a buckeye in your pocket for luck — anyone would be lucky to have one of these beautiful native plants in their landscape. Start scouting for the red blooms this spring then return in the fall to fill your pockets with luck.

Rebecca Bates is an MSU Extension-Lincoln County agent, and can be reached at 601-835-3460 or by e-mail at rebecca.bates@msstate.edu.