great shrub: bottlebrush buckeye

Aesculus parviflora blooms in JulyIT 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.

I had only ever seen a bottlebrush buckeye (Zone 4-8) once before, at 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 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.

aesculus parviflora podsAfter 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.

aesculus goldYears after I found my original plant, Chicago-area nurseryman Roy Klehm learned that I loved this Southeastern native plant and recommended the later-blooming variety called ‘Rogers’ (a selection from A. parviflora var. serotina), a slightly larger plant with very large flower stems (about 30 inches long) 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 also 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, and a group of them would be even more dramatic–and a faster route to a colony as well.

fallen-aesculusA 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 of a shrub. Another year or so and it will be back to its old self, 20 feet across and about 14 feet tall—well, at least that high on the one side that didn’t take a hit. Give it plenty of room, and it will make a beloved companion for decades to come.

Sources of Bottlebrush Buckeye:

 

30 comments
March 23, 2011

comments

  1. Kristina says

    I am tearing up a whole new section of my yard to put in a new bed! I wanted to plant it with larger shrubs/perennials and this would make a fantastic addition! It’s just stunning! Thanks for the info!

  2. says

    One of my favorites. I planted them in an area below utility service lines where trees would have been too tall. I’m hoping they will fill in that area. I think they will.

  3. says

    What a timely post! I was just rummaging through your archives for info on this gorgeous thing. I think it will be the perfect solution for a wide gap left in my roadside border by a zealous utility crew.

  4. Lynn says

    Some varmint nibbled all around several stems of my bottlebrush buckeye last year and killed them, and what was left was a little straggly looking. Do you think I can I prune it back this spring without hurting it?

    • says

      Welcome, Stacy. A great shrub: big, beautiful, multiple seasons of interest. (Winter it’s not so much to look at, but every other day of the year: handsome!). See you soon.

  5. Lisa says

    This shrub is absolutely ethereal. I have one I planted six years ago that acts as the sentry between my more manicured garden, and the wilder woods beyond. It has that same quality as the native dogwood, where the branches appear to be levitating even though they are heavy with flower. For the last few years I have hosted a brunch in mid July, and the buckeye is always blooming. It provokes a ranch of reaction from the seasoned gardeners, ranging from squeals of excitement to sighs over how lovely it is.

    • says

      Welcome, Lisa. Great description of it and I agree: it’s a fine transition from cultivated to a little wilder. My favorite, I do believe. See you soon!

  6. Deborah says

    One caution: I think deer love this shrub. I unwisely planted a young one on a rise near our pond and did not cage it. Deer ate it to the ground and it did not come back.

  7. Jennifer says

    I was just looking at this shrub in a book–Gardening with Native Plants of the South/Wasowski–and was considering it for my front bed on one side of the front door….a foundation planting, if you will. I’ve just seen your comment indicating not so much winter interest…. so maybe it shouldn’t take such a prominent location??

    Again, I’m so happy to have found you and all of the information you are offering here. Thanks!!! :-)

    • says

      Welcome, Jennifer. The Wasowski books are great — really expert. Many people would say this shrub is too twiggy in winter to be right up by the house, but i have seen it flanking long pathways on the way up. Remember, it’s a suckering and irregular looking thing in the offseason — like a thicket. And also remember it’s VERY big. Like it will be taller than the first-story windows by far, and up to 20 feet wide.

  8. russ says

    love this shrub,too-transplanted it to a needier location & love the results- & from its’ former space grew a sucker,which i have also transplanted- took a while for that one to recover, but it did. glad they are not growing as huge as yours-or would probably have to transplant again!
    i always recommend this shrub to others- though around here, i’ve seen enormous prices for gangly sticks- & would therefore appreciate any advice you could offer on how to propagate,i’d lige to grow more in my garden as well as to give them to friends- thx!

  9. Susan Scheck says

    Hello Margaret,
    Even though I live in Hillsdale, right around the corner, We’ve never communicated before. I, too, thought Aesculus parviflorea would be the perfect plant to fill in between trees in ‘my woodland garden’. Being rather thrifty, I bought my 3 plants mailorder from Canada. They were small when they arrives but I assumed rapid growth would ensue. Now, some 10 years later, they are still quite puny. I know the soil stinks but I have been fertilizing them every spring with Miracid and Holytone. I’m no longer young and beginning to despair of having a ecent size shrub in my lifetime! Any suggestions.
    Susan

    • says

      Welcome, Susan. Forget the chemicals (especially that Miracid, which is pure chemical; the Holly Tone has natural ingredients, but even so, not needed)! Our soil is acidic by nature; they don’t need some extreme such as you are trying to create; these are not blueberry bushes. :) Unless a soil test revealed really extreme conditions that required adjustment to be more acidic, forget that stuff. Just water them really well (it may take hours and is best applied with a “leaky pipe” drip hose or a sprinkler on low for many hours) so they can establish. Though they will tolerate some drought once grown up, they can’t get a proper foothold and achieve full stature in dry ground. How puny are they after 10 years? Sounds like the combo of all that “fertilizer” and not enough water, I expect.

  10. Carol P says

    My bottlebrushes were planted 20 years ago. They were really hard to find- a local nursery an hour away from Pittsburgh, owned by a true plantsman (his favorite tree: Stewartia pseudocamellia), was the only place I could find them. I brought 5 1-gallon pots home, planted them in unamended clay soil and today they’re about 12 feet tall and 15 feet across. Anyone can have a lovely garden in the spring, but to have a plant with such dramatic flowers in July?!

  11. Andrew's mother says

    I bought my bottle brush buckeye at a church plant sale, several years ago, not knowing what it was. Last year it blossomed for the first time and this year it is quite glorious. It is so much more exciting than the buckeye tree of the days I lived in Ohio.

  12. Kathy M says

    I wanted to add this to my wildlife garden but wanted to know if it is apt to spread around by means of seed or runners? I saw beautiful red flowered Buckeyes in Charleston S. C . but not sure if I can grow them in Virginia.

    • Greg H says

      I live in Charleston SC and had a red colored buckeye in the back yard of the last home we owned. I remember when we first moved to that home that I did not realize the buzzing bumble bees that I thought were around my head were actually humming birds. I have had a dozen or more in the tree at the same time. Kinda funny to see them perched in a tree like a regular bird. Humming birds love them. Before we moved from that house we started a few new trees with a seed planting party with the grandson. Just threw a couple of the nuts in a pot with some potting soil and watered. Within a few weeks we had sprouts. Grandson loved it. We took the pots to the new home and thru the winter kept them inside and watered well once a week. They are now 8″ to 10″ tall already and will be planted this spring once the weather decides it won’t freeze again. Just ask someone who has a plant and I’m sure the will pass out the nuts. I always did to my friends and family. I also in the past just raked the leaves and nuts in an unused place in the old back yard and they always started to grow back there all alone and unattended. Great plant and one of the first to bloom in the springtime around here. It does take a couple of years to get the first blooms but well worth the wait.

  13. Peter S says

    Planted 5 of these guys in 2005 after moving back to N suburbs of Chicago from Florida. They were just 2-3 sticks in a small pot. Now they are 12′ in diameter, 7′ tall, and flowering their hearts out in front of 3 American beech trees! Absolutely fantastic plant. Got great crop of nuts this year. Squirrels and chipmunks were going nuts.

    • says

      Hi, Peter S. Love your story — as this is one of my favorite plants ever. Big, easy, beautiful in multiple seasons…who could ask for much more? Nice to “meet” you and hope to see you again soon.

  14. Alisa Bee says

    Sorry to join you so late in the conversation…I have heard that Bottlebrush buckeye can be slightly allelopathic. Have you observed this, and whether or not you have, and you recommend any planting companions for it? Thanks–have loved your blog for years but this is my first post!

    • says

      Hi, Alisa. Yes, that seems to be correct, based on 20+ years of growing them here and having multiple giant old plants. Almost no weed seedlings appear underneath even. Once they grow up you can’t really see under them so I just use mulch, and accept this as part of the deal. I have seen some perennial geraniums (like the species phaeum) and hellebores (orientalis) seed in alongside over time, but nothing right under the bottlebrush buckeye.

      • Greg H says

        I used to trim mine back at ground level up about two feet to look more like a tree with a trunk , instead of looking so much like a bush. I planted shade loving plants like hostas and mounds of impatiens in the shade underneath. By the time the buckeyes stopped blooming and the leaves took over the impatiens supplied all of the blooming color in the now provided shade.

        • margaret says

          Hi, Greg. I find that nothing likes to grow under it, generally speaking, and have always assumed it had some kind of allelopathic effect (as do some trees species of Aesculus, I know). Interesting that by thinning it/pruning it you got things to grow beneath it.

  15. pam says

    A beautiful native shrub! We sell them at the native plant garden center I work at in NY and have seen them growing at the High Line in Chelsea (I grew up next to the High LIne all my life….it’s so wonderful to see it come back to life!)

  16. Stefanie Hecht says

    Help! My new plant is dying. I was so excited to learn about the Bottlebrush Buckeye on this site and promptly hunted one down in Colorado (although it wasn’t easy). You note this is good to zone 4. I am in zone 5 and have what I thought would be the perfect spot in good soil at he edge of our yard as it transitions to native ponderosa and mostly mature scrub oak. More shade?

    • says

      Is it very dry where you are, Stefanie? It’s native habitat (Southeast and I think some mid-Atlantic, in what’s called mesic woods — as opposed to xeric at the one extreme or hydric at the other) is quite a different situation to yours, despite the fact that it might be cold-hardy. Also, this plant (and many buckeyes) will get wicked leaf scorch before they settle in or when too hot/dry/windy and hot etc. So you will need to coddle it and yes, if it’s in a scorching spot, move it to a more protected one. Read about the plant in nature here.

  17. SkiGirlG says

    I am concerned about deer…one response above suggest that deer love this shrub however its listed under the category of “shrubs deer hate”. So what to do? There is always the possibility of deer eating shrubs, but this one was suppose to be one they hated. Comments?

    • says

      Hi, SkiGirlG. Bottlebrush buckeye is consistently rated “deer-resistant” or “rarely damaged,” the best you can hope for since when hungry deer will browse most anything. There is almost nothing that is truly “deer-proof” so this is as good as it gets. Again, no absolute guarantees, but unlikely.

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