by John Brouwer
Until twenty years ago, it was assumed that buckeye's natural range extended north only as far as the south side of the great lakes. Then a natural stand of old buckeye was found on Walpole Island at the north end of Lake St. Clair. This is the sole natural occurrence of buckeye in Canada. Southern Ontario is now considered the northern limit of its range.
Buckeye is related to the horse chestnut which is a European import. The leaf and structure is similar although the buckeye form is more upright as contrasted with the sprawling horse chestnut. Its fruit is similar – a large shiny brown nut encased in a fibrous soft shell protected with thornlike spines. The buckeye nut is brown with a white center spot. This resembles the eye of the male deer – hence the name.
Buckeye is an attractive small landscaping tree attaining a height of 50 feet. It can be grown as a large shrub or pruned to become a small tree.
The buckeye nut is very attractive. It is often oiled – the literature suggests that the best way to oil the seed is to rub it alongside your nose – and used in beadwork. Children use the nut as conkers and many a window has been broken with a misdirected conker.
Native Americans roasted, peeled and mashed the buckeye nut into a nutritional meal. Settlers used the light weight wood, 1/3 the density of oak, for carving into utensils. Thin planed strips were woven into baskets and hats. Later the wood was found to be ideal for artificial limbs due to its lightness and non-splitting characteristics.
Early explorers carried buckeye back east for its medicinal value and talismanic wisdom attributes. Extracts from the inner bark of the nut were used for cerebro-spinal treatments and the nut itself was used to treat rheumatism pain.
Buckeye's range is centered on north central states. Political mythology relates that buckeye nuts were used as a symbol in an 1800's Ohioan presidential campaign which led to buckeye becoming the state tree of Ohio. Ohio is often referred to as the buckeye state.
The real promoter of buckeye is Ohio State University whose sports teams are named the buckeyes.
A reference notes that hunters prepare an oiled buckeye nut before the hunt and keep it in their pocket for luck. A more obscure reference notes that the buckeye seed has a similar size and shape to a testicle and that the real motivation for keeping a buckeye is not luck but virility. This certainly puts a different perspective on the buckeye state and Ohio State University's buckeyes.
This year I was able to recover buckeye seed from a tree in Paris, from the Guelph arboretum, and Victoria park. I have planted these in the tree nursery. We'll have to wait until late spring to see if we'll get some seedlings which will give us a few trees to plant in the co-op and surrounding areas.
It will be very interesting to see how men in Waterloo adapt to the availability of buckeyes. Imagine what co-op life might have been like today if buckeye had been planted here twenty years ago and buckeyes were generally available.