Buckeye trees of Kentucky
My father was not a superstitious man, but he had a degree of interest in folk remedies. When he moved to Missouri where there were buckeye trees, he heard that carrying a buckeye in your pocket would help rheumatism. He put one in his pocket and carried it for years.
The buckeye is a beautiful nut. Deep chestnut in color and naturally glossy, it's a joy to behold and to touch -- a nice bit of cargo for a pocket. The attractive appearance of the nut's exterior is at odds with the contents -- the nut meat is bitter and poisonous. Thus, it has limited wildlife value, and farmers don't like buckeye trees growing in their pastures.
If we see a buckeye tree in western Kentucky where I live, it's probably an Ohio buckeye (Aesculus glabra.) You might find an Ohio buckeye growing as an understory tree in almost any wooded area where the soil is coarse. They're not particular about the drainage of their growing-site. They prefer moist soil, but they'll grow in dry sites that get moisture sometimes. The one thing they really hate is heavy clay soils.
In the highlands and mountains of eastern Kentucky, you'd be more likely to find a yellow buckeye (Aesculus flava, also called Aesculus octandra.) The yellow buckeye can grow quite a bit taller than the Ohio buckeye, with a longer, straighter trunk, but it needs a coarse soil and a cool, moist site to really flourish. Typical height for an Ohio buckeye is 40-50 feet, compared to 70 to 80 feet for the yellow buckeye.
Ohio and yellow buckeye leaves are easy to recognize and remember, once identified. They both have a palmately compound leaf with five leaflets. (Palmate means radiating from the base in a fan-like shape.) You might think of five fingers radiating from a very skinny wrist (the stem.)
Both trees are sometimes planted as ornamentals because of their interesting, rugged shape and the bright orange and red color of their autumn foliage. Both have yellow flowers in late spring or early summer after their leaves are fully developed.
Neither the Ohio buckeye nor the yellow buckeye is particularly susceptible to wind and ice damage. You will need to provide moisture in dry spells and shelter from wind or their leaves will get crispy around the edges. Remember -- they are an understory tree in nature.
The yellow and Ohio buckeyes are the two most common native buckeye trees of Kentucky. Two others are mentioned as rare in Trees & Shrubs of Kentucky (see bibliographic info at bottom of this column): the red-and-yellow buckeye (Aesculus discolor) and the red buckeye (Aesculus pavia L.) I was interested to learn while writing this post that the red buckeye is mentioned by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA, source of our electricity) as a shrub to use in shoreline stabilization.
All of the Kentucky buckeyes (and all the other North American buckeyes) are members of the horse-chestnut family.