Dr. Bob Gilbert – Columnist

Bob Gilbert

Someone once asked me if you had to be in the hospital for an extended period who would like to have in the adjoining bed?  My current inclination would be to choose a horticulturist.  But then authors Louise Penny, Marin Walker or Donna Leon could be a lot of fun.   J C Raulston founder of the Raulston Arboretum in Raleigh is no longer with us so today my horticulturist choice would be Dr. Michael Dirr.  

Dr. Dirr is profoundly well informed. He has authored many articles and books but his most important and popular book is the “Manual of Woody Landscape Plants,” which is a staggering tome of 1,186 pages. It is in its fifth edition. Included are wonderful black and white sketches made by his wife, Bonnie. If you go into any nursery east of the Mississippi they should have a copy, if not, you are in the wrong place.  Not only is this book full of information but tucked throughout the text are small bits of humor.  We used this book so often in Kennesaw that we had three copies, one in the library, another in the potting shed and the third in the garage-class room.  A single copy was never in the right place when it was needed. This currently is the only book that stays on my desk top year-round.

Bottlebrush Buckeye
Photo by Karen Lawrence

I have a favorite summer blooming shrub: Bottlebrush Buckeye.  Dirr comments that it is “one of the handsomest of all native southeastern flowering shrubs.” I certainly agree.   As I write this in the beginning of summer, Bottlebrush Buckeye Aesculus parviflora (es-ku-lus par-vi-flo-ia) is poised to bloom.  

The accompanying 2005 photo was taken at Smith Gilbert Gardens where in 1986 a Bottlebrush Buckeye was planted.  It has been blooming ever since with 8 to 12-inch spires composed of numerous small white flowers. The blooms actually look like a bottle brush. In the photo on the left of this is an uncommon shrub with blue blooms Vitex negundo often called simply Vitex or Chastetree.  It was introduced here from Africa.  It is only hardy from Zones 7-9.  Both of these shrubs form the backdrop for an overly ambitious perennial garden.

Bottlebrush is native here and hardy from Zones 4-8.  It belongs to the genus Aesculus which in Latin means acorn.  The species name parviflora means small flowers. There are no other bloom colors other than white.  It  does well in partial shade or full sun and is classified as an understory shrub.  It blooms in early to mid-summer. 

Buckeyes are in a family of plants including chestnuts.  Ohio became the buckeye state because Ohio Presidential candidate William Harrison called himself the “log cabin and hard cider” candidate.  He portrayed himself sitting on the porch of a cabin made from buckeye logs that was festooned with garlands of buckeyes while drinking hard cider.  He won the election. 

 The seeds are inside a brown, pear-shaped capsule or husk that splits open in the fall when the seeds are mature.  They are so named buckeye because the seeds do resemble the eye of a male deer or buck. This plant can grow to 8 to 12 feet tall and spread out to 8 to 15 feet wide.  It forms a multi-stemmed thicket of branches.  There is only one cultivar, Roger’s Late Bottlebrush Buckeye, Aesculus parviflora var. serotine “Roger’s” which has similar blooms that open about two weeks later.  Serotine means late in developing or blooming.

The deciduous leaves typically have 5 to7 oblong sections that are flat and arranged into a palm shape.  Aesculus leaves have become the symbol of the city of Kiev.

This shrub is easy to grow.  It has no serious diseases or pests.  It can be grown from ripe seeds as long as they are put into the ground almost immediately.  The seed coat can dry out quickly making it impossible for the root to break through the outer coating.

The seed is poisonous. Native Americans used to crush the seeds and throw the powder into still water to stun or kill fish.  They then would boil the fish in three water exchanges to get rid of the poison.

And, of course there is the custom of keeping a buckeye in your pocket for good luck. It works best if kept in the right-hand pocket. Also, we used to soak buckeyes in cooking oil which turns them into a beautiful mahogany color.  These were placed in ashtrays which had long lost their function. 

The only problem with this plant is trying to find it for sale. It is in many mail order catalogs.  And of course, you can start your own from seeds if you can find a source.                                                                                                               

Dr. Bob Gilbert, now living in Franklin is cofounder of Smith Gilbert Gardens in Kennesaw Ga.

Karen Lawrence is a professional photographer of botanical subjects and wildlife is from Franklin, N.C.