Beautiful Buckeye Trees for Yard and Garden

The flowers of Aesculus x carnea may be pink or red, depending on the variety.

Probably known to many, the state tree of Ohio is the Ohio Buckeye (Aesculus glabra, 20-50 feet, USDA Hardiness Zones 3-7), a large tree native across eastern North America. Another common name is horse chestnut, a name that refers to its round, inedible, husked nuts with a mahogany sheen. In general, Aesculus trees are striking flowering specimens that come in a wide range of sizes and forms. In the Portland, Oregon area, mature specimen trees are most often seen in an arboretum or park setting. I also see them in older gardens with large lots suitable for big trees.

Species are variable, so it is important for homeowners to know about them before choosing a garden variety for the yard. Some are relatively small, while others are large and would overwhelm many garden spaces. When these trees come into flower, they put on a show that is spectacular. The flowers are largely bee-pollinated, but hummingbirds, moths, and even butterflies will also visit them. Exceptions are noted.

Five Beautiful Buckeyes

California buckeye is noted for its drought tolerance and large candles of summer flowers.

California buckeye (Aesculus californica, Zones 7-8) is a spring-or-summer-blooming California native favored for low-water gardens. The multi-stemmed tree only grows to 20 by 20 feet and has many large, palm-shaped leaves with multiple leaflets. The glory of this tree is its large spikes of cream-colored, fragrant flowers. They rise from the branches like candles from a candelabra. One important note is that the flowers feed native moths and bees, but non-native honeybees are another story. Apparently, the flowers produce a toxin that negatively impacts the growth and development of honeybees, so refrain from growing it, if you live near beehives.

A tough nature is a good reason to grow this buckeye. It is native to the Sierra Nevada foothills where it grows along dry slopes. In the wild, it naturally drops its leaves in mid- to late-summer to ward off severe late-summer drought. In a garden setting, the leaves will remain until fall with moderate irrigation.  The California Buckeye creates an attractive winter silhouette with its silvery trunk and stark branches.

Common horse chestnut is a popular European landscape tree that has escaped in some northern areas of the US.

Common horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum, Zones 4-7) and is native to Europe. It is a very large, single-trunked tree that can reach 60 by 40 feet and bears large, ivory flower spikes in late spring that are pollinated by bees. Be aware that not only is its billowing crown massive, but the roots can also be very dense and tend to break up paved surfaces, so don’t plant it near a sidewalk, driveway, or in a typical city lot. The cultivar ‘Baumannii’ has large white flower panicles and does not set seed. This non-invasive variety is the preferred choice for US gardens.

Ohio buckeye has variable spring flowers that feed bees.

Ohio buckeye (Aesculus glabra, Zones 4-8) is a mid-sized (50-60 feet), single-trunked tree that is widespread across eastern North American.  Its spiked clusters of spring flowers may be in shades of pale green, yellow, or ivory with touches of red or pink. Hummingbirds and a wide range of bees pollinate the flowers. The green, palmately compound leaves turn shades of yellow or red in the fall. A variety for reliably red fall color is Early Glow™ Ohio buckeye. It is also disease-resistant and produces little fruit, which reduces fall mess.

The hummingbird-pollinated scarlet buckeye is the smallest (and arguably) prettiest of all.

The southeastern native scarlet buckeye (Aesculus pavia, Zones 4-8) is a spectacular, small (12-15 feet), multi-stemmed tree with loose spikes of tubular scarlet flowers adapted for hummingbird pollination. The huge flower spikes look impressive for three weeks or more in spring. Through summer, the tree’s large, green, palmately compound leaves are textural and pretty. When summers are dry, the foliage may drop as early as the first week of September. The stark branches and gray bark of the tree look pleasing through winter.

‘Briottii’ is electrified by bright, showy pink spikes of early summer flowers.

The red horse chestnut (Aesculus x carnea ‘Briotii’, Zones 5-8) is a cross between the European common horse chestnut and the American scarlet buckeye. It is a real show-stopper in full bloom with large, beefy flower spikes of deep pink or red. These appear in early summer and can reach up to 10 inches long. It is a relatively compact tree that should not reach more than 30 or 40 feet at maturity, so homeowners with modest-sized yards can consider growing it. An open lawn will show off its features best. Grow it now only for the flowers and the large leaves but for the winter bark as well.

If there is an arboretum or a large park near you, check out their list of trees to see if Aesculus specimens are listed. That way, you may be fortunate enough to see a couple in full bloom before potentially choosing one for your own yard.

[Click here to learn everything that you need to know about how to plant a new tree.]

Early Glow™ Ohio buckeye has reliably red fall color, unlike some other species that lack fall color.



Hummingbird Flowers for Hot, Dry Gardens

All red flowers draw hummingbirds, and tubular red-flowers make hummers go crazy. The birds recognize familiar species that have co-evolved with them for eons for pollination, with flowers held in such a way that hummers can hover and feed freely during extended nectar flows. Many hummingbird-pollinated species originate in hot, dry parts of the American Southwest and Mexico. These are the plants hummers fight over, guard jealously, and build their nests nearby. (Unless you’ve seen a rufous hummingbird in battle, you don’t know the territorial nature of hummingbirds!)

Hot Hummingbird Flowers

California Fuchsia

California fuchsia is a rufous hummingbird favorite. (Image by Maureen Gilmer)

California fuchsia (Zauschneria californica, aka Epilobium canum var. garettii (USDA Hardiness Zones 7-10)), a native from New Mexico to southern Oregon, is one of the finest native hummingbird perennials for hot, dry gardens. Tolerant of full southern exposure and long, late-summer drought, this beauty, with its vivid tubular flowers, thrives in poor, well-drained soils. Hardy and rabbit resistant, this is an ideal plant for rocky outcrops, sloping properties, and perennial cottage gardens. Be sure to give it excellent drainage, and it will thrive.

Firecracker Plant

In striking contrast is the best container plant of all for the summertime hummingbird extravaganza, firecracker plant (Russellia equisetiformis (USDA Hardiness Zones 9-11)). It bears bright red tubular flowers on long, slender stems like horsehair. What makes this the perfect weekend-container-project plant is that it’s well-adapted to grow in taller pots. Firecracker plant weeps and cascades, so when you put it in pots, its beauty is revealed.

Firecracker plants arch and dangle freely in containers. (Image by Maureen Gilmer)

This Mexican perennial has also proved itself in the low desert where it has become a popular landscape plant. When cultivated on slopes or raised beds, the weeping foliage will cascade off the edge. When grown in-ground, the tips sweep the earth and build up internal foliage instead of growing longer.

The fine-textured stems of firecracker plant bloom nonstop until frost. They remain permanent garden fixtures in light or no-frost zones but must be sheltered in pots in colder winter zones. Once recognized by the local hummer population, they’ll return time and again to your patio to feed on this prolific plant. Firecracker plant is now widely available in garden centers. Give it a try this year to bring hummingbirds to your patio every day.

Use these planting tips for success: The most important thing is to find a tall pot that isn’t too big around. Consider knee-height the minimum. For a great contemporary look, choose dark pottery, so the plant appears to float in space as the dangling foliage grows longer. Plant your firecracker in Black Gold All Purpose Potting Mix, but leave at least 2 or 3 inches of the rim at the top. This greater fill space allows for more efficient hand watering.

Autumn Sage

Another arid-zone hummingbird plant that does well throughout the hot, dry west is autumn sage (Salvia greggii (USDA Hardiness Zones 7-10)). It is a super long-blooming, red-flowered native of Texas and Mexico. It’s been bred into many cultivated varieties to add a diversity of hues to your hummer garden. The comparable Southwest native, littleleaf sage (Salvia microphylla (USDA Hardiness Zones 7-10)), has equally lovely flowers, tiny leaves, and many varieties to choose from.


A male ruby-throated hummingbird feeds on lantana flowers.

Though technically adapted for butterfly pollination, the flowers of lantana (Lantana camara (USDA Hardiness Zones 10-11)) also lure hummingbirds. Lantana hybrids that are sterile and seedless, such as the pink and ivory ‘Pinkie’ and members of the Patriot series, prevent invasive volunteers and offer some stunning flower colors. Both creeping and upright forms of these shrubby plants are available. Where it’s colder, put them in hanging baskets, so hummers visit at eye level.

Attract hummingbirds naturally by avoiding feeders altogether; they are messy, a hassle, and flower nectar is healthier for these birds. If you plant properly, hummers will come, nest, and return year after year without you having to lift a finger.

Hummers love the red flowers of autumn sage. (Image by Maureen Gilmer)

Garden Flowers for Hummingbirds

A hummingbird feeding on Salvia.

If there was one pollinator I would like to attract to my garden, it would be the hummingbird. It is such a fascinating bird to watch as it zooms from flower to flower and reveals its characteristic of being quite territorial. For many years, I have planted containers of Salvia ‘Black & Blue’ on our deck because this plant is a hummingbird magnet. Several years ago I tried Salvia ‘Amistad’, which is more purple than ‘Black & Blue’, and performed equally as well.


Salvia ‘Amistad’

So, in the first week of May, I purchased a mixture of Salvia as well as other plants that I have learned attract these little birds. My first step was removing the soil in the containers from last year and adding new. I have found that it is much better to start my containers with fresh potting soil, and I have found a good, effective way to use the old potting soil is to spread it on established garden beds. My potting soil of choice is Black Gold Natural & Organic Potting Soil. It contains perlite and pumice to provide good drainage and has rich organic matter to ensure that the pot does not dry out too quickly in the summer heat.

I also like to mix organic fertilizer into the soil. Usually, I use blood meal and mix it with some cottonseed meal. Using fertilizer at the time of planting helps the plants get off to a good start. Most organic fertilizers tend to be slow release, but blood meal is quite fast acting and can be used by the plant fairly quickly after application. The cottonseed meal is a slower release fertilizer, and combining the two provides both a fast and slow release of nutrients. When working with any soil and chemicals, whether organic or not, it is wise to always wear gloves.

Bonfire Begonia

Begonia Bonfire
Begonia ‘Bonfire’

While most salvias are excellent plants for attracting hummingbirds, there are many other hummingbird plants, most bearing red or orange flowers. Another particular favorite is Begonia ‘Bonfire’. I grow it in a deck basket where it is more exposed to wind and sun. In the past, I would have considered begonias rather fussy to grow and needing shade, but the orange-red-flowered ‘Bonfire’ is an exception. The plant is in sun most of the day and thrives. It blooms all summer until cool weather arrives. Hummingbirds gravitate toward this plant just like they do salvias. Since this plant is more exposed to the elements, I use Black Gold Cocoblend Potting Soil, which contains moisture-retentive coco coir.


Cuphea micropetala

Another hummingbird favorite is the sun-tolerant Cuphea. Its flower resembles a mini fuchsia. Last summer I grew Cuphea micropetala in very hot, full sun and it bloomed continuously all summer.

Do some experiments in your own garden to see which flowers are most attractive to hummingbirds. We enjoy having several containers of hummingbird favorites on our deck, so we can enjoy watching them in the evening. We also enjoy their flower food sources. When attracting any birds, be sure to also have a source of water for them. If you are fortunate, you might even find them nesting in a nearby tree or shrub.