Aesculus californica

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Large flower spikes stand up straight on the limbs of this California native.

April 5, 2017

There’s a California native that would make any plant lover come to a screeching halt along a busy thoroughfare in spring. The California buckeye (Aesculus californica) erupts with flowers on long panicles in March or April. The San Francisco Botanical Garden describes the flowers as “bottlebrush candelabras.” But the flowers aren't the only thing going for the California buckeye. In March, apple-green leaves appear, much earlier than other deciduous trees. Fall leaves (when present) are colorful and are accompanied by chestnut-brown seeds. When the fall foliage drops, the silvery-white bark makes a stunning silhouette in the winter garden.

Photo by Eugene Zelenko

Growing to about 20 feet high, this drought-tolerant tree will drop its leaves in the absence of irrigation or rainfall, which conserves whatever water remains in the trunk and roots. In the landscape, light irrigation will save the leaves from falling.

It attracts native bees and butterflies (and photographers).

Interesting tidbit from the U.S. Forest Service: the seeds of California buckeye served as a staple for California Indians, who would mash the roasted seeds and then leach them to remove the toxin, aesculin. Native Americans also used the toxin in streams and other waterways to stupefy fish for easy capture.

Why grow Aesculus californica?

  • Masses of fragrant white flowers on 4- to 8-inch panicles (sometimes longer)
  • Attracts butterflies and hummingbirds
  • Drought tolerant
  • Year-round interest
  • Utility friendly tree

Sources: The Watershed Nursery, San Francisco Botanical Garden, San Marcos Growers