Red Buckeye (Aesculus pavia)

Firecracker Plant, Red Buckeye, Scarlet Buckeye

Red buckeye (Aesculus pavia) is a flowering plant native to the midwestern and southern United States. Red buckeye is also called the firecracker plant. This plant attracts bees, and its seeds are poisonous. The red buckeye can be used to make soap.

I. Appearance and Characteristics 

Aesculus pavia, known as red buckeye or firecracker plant (formerly Pavia rubra), is a species of deciduous flowering plant. The small tree or shrub is native to the southern and eastern parts of the United States, found from Illinois to Virginia in the north and from Texas to Florida in the south. It is hardy far to the north of its native range, with successful cultivation poleward to Arboretum Mustila in Finland.

It has a number of local names, such as scarlet buckeye, woolly buckeye and firecracker plant.

This plant is widely planted for its beautiful flowers and these flowers are very attractive to birds and bees. The plant is named red buckeye for the color of the flowers and the similarity of the seed to a deer or buck’s eye.

The red buckeye is a large shrub or small tree. It reaches a height of 5–8 m (16–26 ft), often growing in a multi-stemmed form. Its leaves are opposite, and are composed usually of five elliptical serrated leaflets, each 10–15 cm (4–6 in) long. It bears 10–18-centimetre-long (4–7 in) clusters of attractive dark red tubular flowers in the spring. The flowers are hermaphrodite. The smooth light brown fruits, about 2.5 cm (1 in) or so in diameter, reach maturity in early fall.

The flowers are attractive to hummingbirds as well as bees.

II. How to Grow and Care

Sunlight

Red buckeye requires sunlight to grow. It can grow in partial shade to full sun. A position facing the sun is the most preferred, especially in the seedling stage, when sufficient sunlight is essential. In the shade, these plants are usually thin and prone to disease.

In hot summers, be wary of direct sunlight burning the plants. To avoid sunburn, put up shade nets for young trees. Large trees can be protected by painting their trunks white in late fall or early summer, or by covering the base of the trunk with organic mulch.

Temperature

Red buckeye prefers a moist growing environment with a temperature of 12 to 25 ℃. It can tolerate a low temperature of -40 ℃. Above 30 ℃, growth slows, and its leaves and trunk are sensitive to damage from high heat.

Watering

After transplanting a red buckeye tree, the soil needs to be kept moist to encourage rooting. During the growing period, irrigate according to the weather conditions. If there is little rain, dry weather, and strong transpiration in early spring, give more water; if it is during the rainy season, stop irrigation. Add water during early flowering, late flowering, and fruiting periods. At the beginning of winter, water once and then stop. This promotes stronger trunks.

Generally, mature red buckeye trees do not require watering, but if there is a prolonged drought, add more water as needed. If the leaf edges appear scorched, water and spray the plant more frequently.

Soil

Red buckeye roots are deep and extensive, so its planting location requires a deep soil layer. It grows well in fertile, well-drained, slightly acidic to neutral (pH 5.5-7) sandy soil. Although it can also grow in light saline soil, its growth won’t be as good.

Fertilizing

Before transplanting, apply a well-rotted organic fertilizer to the soil pit and mix it well with the soil to provide nutrition for the young tree’s growth. For the rapid growth of young plants, fertilize once a month from spring to fall. From spring to summer, use a fertilizer that contains roughly equal proportions of the three main elements (N:P:K=20:20:20); in fall, you can switch to a high phosphorus-potassium fertilizer (N:P:K=9:45:15 or N:P:K = 10:30:20). This improves the cold and stress resistance of the tree. A well-rotted organic fertilizer can be applied once in late fall to provide nutrients for the second year of growth.

For mature trees, fertilization is determined by the growth of the plants. Generally, you can fertilize 2-3 times a year. If the soil is fertile, no fertilization may be needed. To fertilize, dig a 30 to 40 cm-deep circular trench at the edge of the vertical projection of the canopy. Sprinkle fertilizer into it and mix it slightly when backfilling the soil. Use radial trenches to fertilize big trees older than five years. Dig a few 15 to 40 cm-deep trenches from the edge of the tree trunk to the periphery, and, again, sprinkle fertilizer into the trench and mix it slightly with the backfill soil.

Planting Instructions

It’s best to transplant one-year-old seedlings in spring. When transplanting, dig deep pits and apply base fertilizer. Since red buckeye has a taproot system and there are few fibrous roots, root balls must be transplanted whole to minimize root damage. If subsequent transplanting is planned, maintain a distance of about 1.5 m between small trees; if the position is fixed and the trees won’t be moved, maintain a distance of at least 4 m. Keep the soil moist after planting small trees to prevent the buds from drying up.

If you buy a large sapling that has been growing for several years, prune some branches before transplanting to reduce water evaporation and keep the sapling hydrated. You can prune overgrown, diseased, or damaged branches to about one-third of the original branches of the canopy.

In addition, remove some of the leaves to reduce water evaporation. Large saplings need to be transplanted with soil. The size of the root ball is generally 7-10 times the diameter of the seedling at breast height. Dig a pit 50 to 60 cm deep, and keep trees at least 4 m apart. After planting, compact and water the soil thoroughly.

Pruning

Usually red buckeye trees do not need pruning, because its natural crown is round and it is better to keep the original crown shape. Light pruning can be carried out after the fall of leaves: over-long branches can be shortened, over-dense branches can be thinned, and diseased or dry branches can be completely removed. This avoids the consumption of excess nutrients, allows more light to reach the plant’s interior, is conducive to its healthy growth, promotes the air circulation inside the plant, and effectively reduces disease.

Propagation

Transplanting

The best time to transplant red buckeye is during the late winter to early spring (think S3-S4), as this allows the plant enough time to establish roots before the active growth season. Red buckeye prefers partial to full sun locations. Remember, the key to successful transplants lie in good watering habits post-transplant.

Pests and Diseases

Fall leaves are best removed and burned promptly to keep your yard clean, or they can be used to make organic fertilizer. This prevents germs and insect eggs from overwintering in dead leaves and can avoid pests and diseases in the following year.

III. Uses and Benefits 

Red buckeye (Aesculus pavia) is a tall shrub that is most commonly grown as a hedge or specimen tree in ornamental gardens. It is most valued for its pinnacles of showy red flowers that bloom in late spring and are particularly attractive to hummingbirds. Yellow honeysuckles or azaleas make good partners for this plant in meadow and prairie gardens.

Red Buckeye (Aesculus pavia) Details

Common name Firecracker Plant, Red Buckeye, Scarlet Buckeye
Botanical name Aesculus pavia
Plant type Native Plant
Hardiness zone 4a, 4b, 5a, 5b, 6a, 6b, 7a, 7b, 8a, 8b
Growth rate Medium
Harvest time Fall
Height 15 ft. 0 in. - 25 ft. 0 in.
Width 15 ft. 0 in. - 25 ft. 0 in.
Sunlight Partial Shade (Direct sunlight only part of the day, 2-6 hours)
Soil condition High Organic Matter
Flower color Orange
Leaf color Green