great shrub: bottlebrush buckeye
IT FELT LIKE SUCH A BIG SCORE the day many years ago when I found the bottlebrush buckeye, Aesculus parviflora, in a nursery in New Bedford, Massachusetts, even though the plant was just a small thing in a plastic pot at the time. Now it’s my biggest shrub, and also one of my favorites, for it hummocky shape, handsome leaves that turn gold in fall, and easy, basically disease-free disposition. Pollinators agree it’s a winner.
I had only ever seen a bottlebrush buckeye (Zone 4-8) once before, at the public garden called Wave Hill in New York City, a giant suckering mound of a thing probably 20 feet across and more than a dozen high. It grew there in the semi-shade of tall trees, as it is happy to do and does in its natural habitat of the Southeastern United States. I loved its big mountain of a presence right away—and then on that shopping trip to Allen Haskell’s former nursery in New Bedford, there it was. My plant!
Though from a distance the flowers appear to be cream-colored, each tiny flower on the long wands is delicately splashed with drops of orangey-red paint. Butterflies and many insect pollinators love to visit them (that’s a silver-spotted skipper sampling the offerings, above).
After the blooms fade, everyone always asks, “What’s that shrubby pear?” in late summer and early fall, when the brown (pear-shaped, of course) pods (above) form. It’s no pear at all; it’s a chestnut relative.
Years after I found my original plant, Chicago-area nurseryman Roy Klehm learned that I loved this plant and recommended the later-blooming variety called ‘Rogers’ (a selection from A. parviflora var. serotina). It’s a slightly larger shrub with very large flower stems (about 30 inches long, photo near the bottom of the page) that blooms a couple of weeks after the straight species. Now I have a longer season of Aesculus to enjoy, not a bad thing…and more of those giant mounds of fall gold (above).
Bottlebrush buckeye can be planted out in the middle of a lawn as well (especially up North, where the summer sun is less fierce), making a beautiful specimen. A group of them would be even more dramatic–and a faster route to a colony as well.
A few years ago, my original plant got caught in the swirling winds of a microburst of oddball weather here (above), and half of it was flattened, remember? Thankfully, there are always more stems suckering up from this strong colonizer. Another year or so and it was back to its old self, 20 feet across and about 14 feet tall. Give it plenty of room, and it will make a beloved companion for decades to come.