Friday, May 17, 2013

Western Buckeye

Most springs I notice the buckeyes only when the flower spikes peep out from among the trunks of taller trees, behind barricades of greenbriar and buckbrush. This year the slow spring left the timber open for me to watch more of the cycle.

The woods and underbrush put out leaves later than usual, but the buckeye kept close to its solar schedule. I cleared a new trail during the winter. Hidden under a hillside, the path led through a thicket of slim trunks with bark like mosaic, bare branches and saplings with large end buds. By late March, the buds had taken on rich reds and browns, some of them swollen to show shiny golden beads inside.

I missed a couple of days of walking in early April. When I looked down the hill again, the thicket was bright green. Each bud had released six compound leaves with seven leaflets each, plus a budding flower spike — like clowns bursting out in all directions from a circus car. The rest of the woods had barely begun to change color.

The bud spikes grew slowly, standing tall above the branches. The weather turned chilly again. The leaves drooped a little but lost none of their color, vivid as green fire beside the bare hickories. When the sun finally returned, the buckeyes rushed to bloom. The flowers rose almost six inches tall in golden pyramids streaked with red and orange.

Watching the buckeyes, I learned to spot them in thickets along the roadside, at the edges of the neighbors’ timber and in the deep cuts of creeks. I began to recognize the spreading shape of the larger trees, broad at the base with an overhang of branches above.

Western buckeye (Aesculus glabra), also called horse chestnut, grows in thickets because of the seeds produced by those abundant flowers. By late September the fruits ripen into dark brown nuts, each marked with the pale deer’s-eye scar that gives the tree its name. The nuts are toxic and not considered edible, although indigenous people boiled and leached them for food. The wood was used for cradles; tannic acid was extracted from the nuts for curing leather. It’s good luck to carry a buckeye in your pocket.

My father made a necklace of buckeyes for me when I was in junior high. He pierced each one and strung them on a piece of twine, with the larger beads in the center. They clacked like a percussion instrument when I wore them. Years later I learned that in some Wiccan traditions, women wear ritual necklaces of nuts or seeds or shells — something that was once alive — to honor the Goddess.

I wear my buckeye necklace to honor the spirit of these woods, the genius sylvestris, and to honor my father and my ancestors. Holding a buckeye in my hand, I touch the life of the woods: the seed that will become root and branch, the bud that will burst into leaf and blossom. Stag looks out of each buckeye, watching over generations of wilderness to come.

Buckeye was one of the National Arbor Day Foundation’s candidates for America’s national tree
(Oak won the competition.)

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