Friday, September 14, 2012

The Buckeye Battle Cry

Species name: Aesculus glabra

Common name: Ohio buckeye

Location: Ontario

It should come as no surprise to find out that this tree is native to Ohio and the surrounding area. In fact, Ohioans are so attached to this tree it is not only the mascot of Ohio State University, but also the state tree. They've even gone as far as making an official state candy called the buckeye that mimics the tree's fruit. The "nativeness" of this plant is currently up for debate. Up until last year, I would have put the "non-native" status, but there was one stand of trees of Ohio buckeye discovered on Walpole Island in Ontario very recently. There has also been the suggestion that other individuals in Ontario might appear to have been planted but are actually free-growing. Either way, if these trees are native or not this is the northernmost extreme edge of the growing range.

The fruits of these plants are quite large and dangerous-looking due to their long spines. The seeds that the fruit contain are brown and very smooth, and are sometimes dried and used as beads for necklaces. The seeds contain tannic acid, which is one of the components of the process of tanning leather. These seeds are only one of many sources, and they were used for this purpose in the 1600s. The outer husk of the seed was also sometimes removed and the inner flesh boiled, mashed, then pan-fried in small patties. This food was called "hetuck"and was reported to be regularly eaten. I find this hard to believe, since it's actually rather well reported that the seeds of the Ohio buckeye tree are poisonous. Perhaps the method in which they were cooked denatured any biologically-active toxins.

Like humans, cows also show a severe sensitivity to chemicals in the buckeye seed, and so caution should be exerted before planting this species on a farm. Unfortunately, cows actually seem to be attracted to buckeye fruit so poisonings and death of livestock are routine occurrences in the fall when the plant sheds the seeds.