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. 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. Barbee' 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. Christine 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?

    1. Margaret 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.

    1. Margaret 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!!! :-)

    1. Margaret 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.

    1. Margaret 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.

    1. 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.

    1. Margaret 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!

    1. margaret 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.

      1. 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.

        1. 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?

    1. margaret 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?

    1. margaret 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.

  18. Mindy says:

    This looks like a beautiful plant and I think I have a good spot for some but I most know if it is one that the rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, skunks, etc. will way like salad. If it is how do I keep them away? I have no bulbs in my yard because the woodland creatures keep eating them.

      1. Patricia day says:

        I have had one for 2 years, & I live in a world of squirrels, and they have never bothered it. No critters have ever bothered them.

        1. margaret says:

          Thanks, Patricia — I agree. Just pollinators and other flying insects at flowering time, which here is in July.

  19. Stephanie B says:

    Most of our property is heavily wooded & shaded. The trick is to find shade plants that we like, are native but not invasive, and the deer don’t find yummy.

  20. John says:

    If you were in New Bedford you must be speaking about the late Allen Haskell’s nursery…such a great selection of nursery items and the man was a walking encyclopedia of knowledge.

  21. Carol says:

    One year I planted 25 daffodil bulbs, and yes I realized two squirrels were watching me, one peeking around one side of a big old mulberry tree, the other from the other side. When the dust settled, they dug up all but one. Daffodils are supposed to be poisonous, but either they are not or these squirrels had one big belly ache. It was some years later before I planted again, and this time I had a large square of chicken wire that fit nicely over the flower bed. The chicken wire was anchored with rocks from my rock garden, did not show at all, and I left it there for many years. Now, it is gone, the daffodils are happy and the squirrels find other things to munch on.

  22. mary says:

    We planted 4 buckeyes a few years ago in the front yard along the woods edge. The first season they were glorious despite their small size. That winter, the deer almost destroyed them. The second season the trees recovered slow but sure – no blooms, but leafy and a few more shoots. Having learned our lesson we fenced the buckeyes in the second winter (and have done so ever since). Today our trees are spectacular, full, and thriving beautifully.

  23. Sue L'Hommedieu says:

    I’ve found the flowers are quite a favorite of Japanese beetles. They make a disgusting mess of the blooms. Just a warning in case you have a lot of them like I do.

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