In A State of Buckeye Bliss

In another installment of The Blogging Naturalist, park interpreter Daniel Williford considers the wonder of the California buckeye, now blooming its head off.

by Daniel Williford

May 30, 2014—Last February while walking the Buckeye Trail at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, I was amazed by the abundance of shiny small potato-sized seeds of the California Buckeye (Aesculus californica) everywhere on the trail. So inviting and beautiful these seeds were that I could not resist picking one up. Much to my surprise, when I picked up the buckeye seed and lifted it off the ground, I found a root about the size of a wood rat tail had already started to grow out of it! After sharing my awe and excitement with the group I was with, I very gingerly placed the root and seed back into the ground to continue its growth. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of seeds were scattered along this fecund trail of buckeyes!

The bewildering dichotomy of these life-sustaining seeds next to the leafless and lifeless (though only in external appearance) trees that produced them impressed upon me how fantastic world of the California buckeye really is. Now, at the tail end of springtime, this deciduous shrub is festooned with sweet-scented pinkish-white flowers. Jutting out of the branches are spikes of numerous blossoms in a shape reminiscent of a Dr. Seussian candle growing out of finger-like leaves. It seems that no matter the time of year, the California buckeye is doing something remarkable.

Read The Blogging Naturalist on the yellow rock-rose
Read The Blogging Naturalist on the brief flowering of the soap plant

A California endemic (meaning it grows only in the Golden State), the buckeye resides in the Coast Ranges from roughly northern Los Angeles to Mendocino and Trinity counties in the north as well as along the west side of the Sierra Nevada. This soapberry family (Sapindaceae) member grows from almost sea level to up to 4,000 feet and can be seen locally, among other places, in the southern region of Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, Wilder Ranch State Park and along the San Lorenzo River throughout downtown Santa Cruz. Its namesake trail at Henry Cowell Redwoods will lead you down to a remote and wild part of the river and is a great place to check out the California buckeye up close. Also near the Rincon Trailhead on Route 9 and along Graham Hill Road are two other areas where one can be dazzled by this tree. If driving by the California buckeye, make sure to roll down your car window and let the intoxicating smell of the blossoms make you smile.

This shrub (taller buckeyes could accurately be called "trees") was used to varying degrees by native Californians. The seeds, being toxic, would be leached and sometimes roasted to expel any of the poisonous properties before eating. This nut would be used more frequently if acorn supplies were scarce. The seeds were also reportedly ground up and placed into a small pool in a river or creek and used to paralyze fish, which would then float to the top and be collected to be eaten. A potential current use is as a mosquito repellant. A young science student in California created a natural mosquito poison from the flowers of the buckeye.

Whatever the future uses of this plant may be, one thing we can know for sure is that right now the California buckeye is giving us an incredible botanical display! Follow the scent to seek out the incredible beauty of the California buckeye, take time to sit underneath one and experience the remarkable world of this native tree.

Daniel Williford is a plant enthusiast with a particular focus on California native plants. Having lived in Mendocino and San Diego, he now calls Santa Cruz home. This has given him the wonderful opportunity to experience the beautiful floristic diversity throughout this amazing state. Working for a variety of organizations (California State Parks, public schools and outdoor science schools), he has taught outdoor and environmental education for all ages. Currently, he serves as the park interpreter at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park in Felton.