Garden Notes: The state of buckeyes

Catch the beautiful chestnut trees while you can.

Susan Safford

Are we pollen-ated enough, already? Wait — there’s more! Autumn olive, pine, many grasses, and all plants in flower that utilize wind pollination for their reproduction. Rainfall helps to wash the invisible cloud down to earth and out of circulation; airy weather exacerbates the effect.

Admire Aesculus

On Memorial Day weekend, I managed to resist the beautiful yellow buckeye (Aesculus flava) sapling on sale at Rhode Island’s Sakonnet Garden open garden day — just barely; I already have one.

Yesteryear’s tree favorites include horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum), catalpa, and the American elm. Fashions in tree planting come, and they go; foliar diseases have made horse chestnuts less viable, and reduced their popularity and numbers here. The conditions of spring 2019, though, seem to have suited the Island’s existing horse chestnuts, and they are blooming their heads off.

South Road, Chilmark, still sports numbers of impressive or growing horse chestnuts, but wherever found, at the moment they are spectacular. They order the boulevards and parks of many European cities and towns, and were admired by earlier generations of Islanders, who appreciated their look and texture.

Horse chestnuts are true landscape trees, with middling lifespans and few commercial uses. (Formerly the seeds were thought to be a tonic for horses, and an extract of them was an ingredient in Vitabath, a bath gel, but they contain several toxic elements). The trees stand apart: shapely, oval-upright stature; bold branching and leaf texture; and the upright panicles of “candles” decorating them now. There is nothing else like them in the treescape.

Native North American Aesculus are called buckeyes, which distinguishes them from other continents’ horse chestnuts. The yellow buckeye, A. flava (syn. A. octandra), is a tall tree with yellow blossoms and excellent red fall color. The beautiful red buckeye, A. pavia, grows as a small or multistemmed tree, with red to yellow blossoms loved by hummingbirds. A useful, multistemmed, colony-forming shrub is A. parviflora, the bottlebrush buckeye.

What is thought to be a hybrid between A. hippocastanum and A. pavia, the North American red buckeye, is the red horse-chestnut, A. x carnea. Several beautiful, large-flowered cultivars and backcrosses of this form exist, such as ‘Briotii’ and ‘O’Neil Red.’

The horse chestnuts and buckeyes prefer soils, such as bottomlands, that are well-drained and moist, in full sun to light shade. Avoid dry locations. As a lover of these trees in the landscape, I hope for solutions to the foliar problems. Read more about Aesculus species here:


Plant a flowering shrub

Rare Find Nursery of Jackson, N.J., one of the sellers of plants at the Sakonnet Garden, hosting half a dozen specialty plant sellers, offered the yellow buckeye; instead I took its comprehensive catalogue. Any garden center in early June is a buffet of blooming plants that ignite plant lust, certainly rhododendrons (which includes “azaleas”). For the many who are planting one, here is some emphatic info I cribbed from Rare Find Nursery’s catalogue:

“Hank Schannen’s ‘Criteria for success with rhododendrons:” The first 6 are: drainage, drainage … and drainage. “7. Acid pH. 8. Dappled shade. 9. Able to water when needed. 10. If containerized, loosen roots (viciously). 11. When in doubt, plant HIGH! 12. Hmmmm — More DRAINAGE!”

The criteria are followed by “Nine ways to kill a rhododendron: 1. Site on the southwest corner of a house. 2. Full sun. 3. Heavy clay soil. 4. Wet — poor drainage. 5. Downspout nearby. 6. Plunk the containerized plant into the ground with root ball in pristine condition. 7. Ignore Nos. 1 – 7 criteria. 8. Ignore No. 12 criteria. 9. Ignore No. 12 criteria.” Get the message?

Many later-flowering lilacs also await smitten buyers. In contrast to the shade-tolerant rhododendrons, lilacs are sun lovers. Syringa species are plants for open and sunny sites, many species being found in open mountainous terrain in their places of origin.

Bring lilacs with you into late spring/summer: lilacs such as ‘Miss Kim’ and ‘Palibin’ share with common lilacs strong, beautiful fragrance, but are later and more compact. Other, later lilacs include the tree lilac, S. reticulata, and summer-blooming ‘Preston’ hybrids.


In the garden

The branding of pots and containers undoubtedly benefits sales for the nursery industry. Smart move! Except — growers cannot reuse the branded containers without plant patent or copyright infringement. The burden of plastic waste disposal is outsourced onto garden centers, retail customers, and municipal landfills and recycling. We have combated single-use water bottles, but we also need to combat single-use plastic nursery waste, a similar problem.

Encourage children to sow sunflowers. The seeds are easily handled, and germinate fast.

Chipmunks and squirrels are sabotaging my garden. Chipmunks are great tunnelers, and excavate extensive underground chambers that can undermine retaining walls and hardscape, as well as deep tunnels in soft earth. These chipmunks are virtually tame, scooting underfoot en route to popping down into one of their tunnels, or sitting on rocks, thumbing their noses. “Cute” yes, but real garden pests. They appear to bite off plants’ roots from the bottom, similar to voles. They like potato tubers and, I suspect, eggs.

Hollies are not sick; they drop their old leaves in spring.

Asparagus and peas are impervious to damp and chilly conditions; in fact, they grow more brittle and tender.

It feels as if last year’s spray schedule was barely finished, and now it is time to resume.

The Edgartown School’s garden plant sale will continue until plants are gone or school’s out. Visit the M.V. Community Greenhouse, New York Avenue, Oak Bluffs, for well-grown starters and baskets.