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great shrub: bottlebrush buckeye

Aesculus parviflora blooms in JulyIT FELT LIKE SUCH A BIG SCORE the day decades 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 impressively gold in fall, and easy, basically disease-free disposition. Pollinators agree it’s a winner.

I had only ever seen a bottlebrush buckeye (Zone 5-8) 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 does in its natural habitat of the Southeastern United States, specifically rich woodlands in Alabama, Georgia, and northern Florida. 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!

silver-spotted skipper in aesculusThough from a distance the flowers appear to be cream-colored, each tiny one on the long wands (technically panicles) is delicately splashed with drops of orangey-red paint–actually the red anthers and pinkish filaments inside the little trumpets. Butterflies and many insect pollinators love to visit them (that’s a silver-spotted skipper sampling the offerings, above).

One year, a group of Baltimore orioles explored them enthusiastically at bloom time in the garden, too, as they do apple and cherry blossoms here in early spring. (Among other wildlife, it is rated as not appealing to deer.)

aesculus parviflora podsAfter the blooms fade, garden visitors always ask, “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 related to horse chestnuts.

aesculus parviflora nutsOnly once in all the years I have grown it has the Aesculus produced a full crop of mature nuts (above a few of the many hundreds from the 2015 crop). Though hardy up here in Zone 5, conditions are apparently not ideal for reliable reproduction. The nuts delighted local chipmunks and squirrels, but are reported to be poisonous to humans or livestock.

aesculus goldYears after I found my original plant, Chicago-area nurseryman Roy Klehm learned that I loved Aesculus 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 farther down 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. I also have more of those giant mounds of fall gold (above).

In warmer zones like its native range, planting bottlebrush buckeye in shade to part shade is recommended, and it does well in shady spots here, too. Bottlebrush buckeye can be planted out in the open as well 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.

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. Another year or two and it was back to its old self, 20 feet across and about 14 feet tall. Give it plenty of room–and I mean plenty–and it will make a beloved companion for decades to come.

aesculus parviflora rogers flower

sources of bottlebrush buckeye and more:

  1. Joe Lynch says:

    I ‘discovered’ this wonderful shrub a few years ago…we are populating an old farm in southeastern PA and regularly attend a ‘landscapers’ auction nearby. We thought we would take a chance on this plant and now we LOVE it! I’m so glad to see others do as well. I discovered the ‘nuts’ for the first time this year (planted about 6 years ago). But clearly the most spectacular aspect of this plant is the bloom time, and the number of butterflies! It is like something out of “The Birds” only with butterflies (much less threatening). :)

    Enjoy your posts Margaret. Keep up the great work!

    1. margaret says:

      Thanks, Joe, and glad to “meet” another bottlebrush buckeye lover. Yes, the butterflies. Amazing in bloom. Thanks also for the kind words.

  2. judy says:

    Margaret,
    I have a gorgeous Bottlebrush Buckeye in my garden and I too got my first drop of buckeye nuts. I have to move the plant this fall to another location as I am putting a shed in the location where it sits. The plant is about 5-6 feet wide now. Any tips on transplanting it? I am not moving it very far, probably about 8 feet away but wonder if I should partially prune it or any other thoughts on carefully moving it.

    thanks, Judy

    1. margaret says:

      I have never moved one, Judy, but since it suckers I presume the root system is a bit wide-ranging, not a single crown (unless it hasn’t been in the ground long). I hate to prune things before winter myself, preferring to wait till winter has it way with the plant in case there is any damage. I will say it is brittle, though, so undoubtedly a lot of twiggy growth will get “pruned” in the process. If you have ever tried to even crawl inside a clump to pull a weed or prune a dead branch you usually do damage en route (or at least I do!).

      1. Michael Waters says:

        I have one that’s about 10 years old in an area frequented by MANY deer. Can verify it is highly deer resistant. Never even had a nibble.

  3. Dee says:

    I just got one today at a garden club sale, and where I want to put it doesn’t have a lot of space. My question is, can it be pruned if it gets too big ??

    1. margaret says:

      You can’t really contain this wonderful thing, Dee; it’s a very large suckering shrub (my various plants of different ages and locations light and soil-wise are from 12 to 20-plus feet across and probably 10 to 12 or more feet high). Yes, you can keep cutting out all the suckers, I suppose, but the character of the plant is to form a colony, a big mound or “hummock,” so I can’t imagine what it will thing if beheaded over and again.

  4. Keren says:

    For those worried about deer — while you can never really predict what they’ll do, I live in an area with TREMENDOUS deer pressure (see them daily on my 2/3 acre property). Other than maybe tasting it when it was small, they’ve never bothered it. I recommend protecting it with a wire fence the first year if you are worried (something I have to do with almost anything I plant) but then it should be okay.

  5. Janet N says:

    I live in SE PA. A few years ago I read about bottlebrush buckeyes and decided I wanted to buy one or two. I ordered 2 on Amazon. They sent 3. There are still quite small. I am planting these to replace my rhodedendron which have developed some type of disease and are dyeing. I enjoyed reading about your experiences with them. I am looking forward to mine blooming some day!

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Janet. This is a big plant that takes a number of years to reach shrub-hood, let alone its massive potential. My first plant came in a 2-gallon pot and I still felt impatient; the others came in 5-gallon or ball-and-burlapped, dug from nursery fields. But your seedlings will get there! : )

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Marilyn. It will get VERY big if left to do so. It forms a suckering colony of giant-ness. Don’t shear it back all over like it was a topiary, but go in and look at the base and see which shoots emanating from the ground near the perimeter need to go, I think, so that you reduce the size of the colony, so to speak. I don’t know how much space you have given it, but it will easily take up 20 feet across, as two of my four plants have (the other two, in less sun, are almost there), and I doubt it can be kept under 10 wide. If you must keep it in check, you can cut the unwanted stems to the ground, and perhaps in early spring next year, when there are no leaves so you can really see where the suckers are emanating from, you will want to actually dig up portions to reduce it. If potted up, they’d be great passalong plants for neighbors/friends with a big space in their garden for this great plant.

  6. Mary Saunders says:

    My Bottlebrush Buckeye is enormous and needs to be pruned. It seemed to grow quickly this year. Can I safely prune it in July or should I wait for cooler weather? It’s at a vacation home and I am not always there at what might be the proper time.

    1. margaret says:

      Because it makes its flower buds for next year on old wood, to avoid cutting those off, it’s good to prune right after flowering, before they form. So go for it. Just to be clear, though: This shrubs cannot be kept in a small space, no matter when you prune. Once it settles in and starts to really grow, the colony can easily widen by a foot a year…my oldest plant is at least 20 feet across, despite my taking off branches at the perimeter each year.

  7. Vinod says:

    Just want to note that chesnuts and horse-chestnuts are not closely related, and buckeyes are in the same genus as horse-chestnuts. Great posts, love reading them

  8. Suzanne Stimpson says:

    My neighbor owns one and it is planted in the front yard. What a delight. Bigger every year. A real specimen planting. Maybe I need to see if I have room for one.

  9. John says:

    I also have a bottlebrush buckeye and have had it for nine years…..here in Madison, Wisconsin. I am originally from Ohio (State Buckeyes) and planted it near my neighbor who is from Wisconsin (a little rivilary). To my delight I learned that the blooms attract Japanese Beetles and the blooms are TOXIC to the Beetles. After consuming the bloom the Beetle will become paralyzed, drop off the plant and die.

    1. margaret says:

      I wish that were true…so now you have me searching the scientific journal abstracts! But the only journal article I can find about it says it hadn’t been “empirically tested”(Dept. of Entomology, University of Kentucky, 2003), but that in their study, “Contrary to published anecdotes, neither flowers nor foliage or larkspur and bottlebrush buckeye were toxic to Japanese beetles.” I see citations of 1940 studies that claimed the toxicity, but no new work that confirms it. Interesting!

      1. John says:

        Margaret,

        I read the 1940 study as well. My bush is next to a patio and everyday I see several beetles laying on the bricks either dead or on their back twitching a leg or two. For now, I will believe it.

        Bob,

        I purchased my buckeye at a local nursery in Wisconsin in a five gallon bucket. At that time (nine years ago) the cost was $100.00. They really grow fast and it has made it through some tough and cold Wisconsin winters.

        1. John Roll says:

          I have watched the Japanese Beetles die every year during early July from the flower…….not the foliage. I paid closer attention and I don’t know if is toxic or the beetle just eats too much but in the end it is lethal. They drop from the flower, usually land on their back, and die.

  10. Bob says:

    I’ve been trying to buy this plant for two years. None of the local nurseries have it or seem to know anything about it. Can you point me in the right direction? and when is the best time to plant it? (zone 7, foot of the Blue Ridge)

  11. T Patterson says:

    A lot of questions about pruning & shaping. I’ll add my experience with my “specimen” which is over 15 years in place: By crawling under and cutting root sprouts I’ve kept my shrub buckeye to a single small tree form. Giving it a haircut is an on-hands-and-knees operation several times in a season. The spread of the sprouts has certainly widened, but cutting has kept it in check, and the pruning doesn’t take so long. In many cases the colonizing is a benefit, but I needed my Aesculus to layer in, sharing space with other native shrubs. …Love this plant, and thanks for the article.

  12. Stephanie Riesel says:

    My son graduated from Ohio State univ & they r the buckeye state. I have had 2 – one suffered but thus year it is glorious! The other has alwYs done well. Thanks for new info-
    I am in New Milford Ctb& they can be bought at local nurseries.

  13. Lisa says:

    Hi. Can you tell me what this looks like in winter (Maryland-level winter)? I’ve been looking for pics/intel online. Does it keep leaves? Does it look ‘twig-like’ (like a hydrangea)? Thanks. I have a large shady/hilly/wooded area that i think this will work well in (and will go well with our hanging OSU Buckeye flag ;-) ). And, is there anything i should be mindful of in terms of the amount of horse chestnuts produced? Because this is a large shrub I want to understand as much as possible before trying to plant one. Thank you. Much appreciated!

    1. margaret says:

      It’s twiggy, like a giant colony of stems of different heights (usually the tallest toward the center of the colony). It is deciduous, usually turning yellow before dropping its foliage.

  14. Heather winck says:

    I just planted several bottle brushes last year. I did get a few blooms but this winter the rabbits have been feasting and they look awful. Some with only one chewed twig left. Will they come up again or should I just buy new ones? Help!!

    1. margaret says:

      Sorry to miss this question earlier, Heather. I suspect they will resprout, since they are a suckering shrub of considerable vigor, but the rabbit situation needs to be dealt with before it happens again and again, of course.

  15. Anna Crotty says:

    I live in ohio and my bottlebrush buckeye appeared in my woods at the back of my yard in all it’s glory. I had to research to see what it was. It is spreading all along th hill which my woods is on and is absolutely gorgeous! Somehow it appeared here all on its own. Love it

    1. margaret says:

      I wonder if someone not so far away has one in their garden (or a park perhaps) and a squirrel brought the chestnut-like nut to bury at your place.

  16. amy says:

    My neighbor found this in our adjoining woods. We have both lived her 16 years and never seen it before. Could it be wild? How long does it take for them to get this big? It is about 25′ x 25′ on a hillside.

    1. margaret says:

      I don’t know where your woods are, Amy. Its native range is more in the Southeastern U.S. For a colony that size to establish from a single nursery plant I would say 8 or 10 years. I have four such big hummocks of them, each from a single potted plant from a nursery. It has been in the nursery trade a long time (though not necessarily “common” or “popular” like some other plants) so is there a house nearby where you saw it?

    1. margaret says:

      Yes, Sue, you can indeed. I would sow them in a nursery area (or in nursery pots that you then plunge in the ground for the winter even) when they are fresh, not waiting till they dry out or anything. Note that chipmunks and squirrels may dig them up, so perhaps cover the spot with mesh?

    1. margaret says:

      Wow, Elaine, that’s great news. Various Trustees properties here near where I live, too, but I had not heard about this. Thank you.

  17. Alissa says:

    For those who want to grow bottlebrush buckeye but are daunted by the size, Song Sparrow now has a dwarf variety from the Dawes Arboretum, which gets to about 4′ in 10 years. I just bought three this spring!

    1. margaret says:

      I saw word of this somewhere last year, Alisa — but have not yet “met” the plant in person. Thanks for reminding me.

  18. Kay says:

    I planted a very small buckeye that I purchased at a local nursery. I put it in the ground, in a spot I could give it love. It is 2 years old now and about 2 feet tall. I need to transplant it. Is fall best? Spring? It really needs to be moved.

    1. margaret says:

      My feeling about transplanting is that while you can do it any time, it’s easiest when things are winding down for the season OR just before they start up — meaning if a little shock isn’t going to hurt anything or cause loss of leaves or whatever as it might in the approaching heat of summer. Don’t know where you live, but here the next ideal time would be mid-September to mid-October sometime.

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