Focus on Fostoria - July_7_03

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July 9, 2003

Are You a Buckeye, or a Horse Chestnut?
The Historical Society Finds out Which
By Leonard Skonecki

Rah! Rah! Rah! Ohio State University Horse Chestnuts! Go! Fight! Win!

Sounds pretty silly, doesn't it?

Everyone knows that we here in Ohio are Buckeyes, not Horse Chestnuts.

However, not everyone can tell a buckeye tree from a horse chestnut. That was one of the things Kent Hoiles explained to the Fostoria Area Historical Society in his presentation on Ohio's state tree at the Society's My 18 meeting in the Judy Miller Room of the Fostoria Area Historical Museum.

Kent lives near Risingsun. He has a tree farm and is currently growing 4,000 buckeyes. An article featuring his work on behalf of the state tree appeared in the March 2003 issue of Ohio Magazine.

It's fairly common knowledge that the buckeye gets its name from the fact that its nut resembles the eye of a deer – a buck's eye. Native Americans noticed that resemblance, too, and their word for buckeye was "hetuck."

Many people think they know a buckeye when they see one, but they might be barking up the wrong tree. The horse chestnut and the buckeye look very much alike but they're too different trees.

Same family (Hippocastanaceae),but a different tree.

A horse chestnut has a larger, differently-shaped leaf. Horse chestnut leaves come in clusters of seven; buckeyes in five to nine.

The buckeye has a narrow, elliptical leaf. The horse chestnut is more rounded at the end.

The horse chestnut was brought to America from Europe as a landscape tree. It is larger than the buckeye.

There is even a difference in the nut, the buckeye itself. The horse chestnut has a larger nut with a larger white spot.

The buds of the horse chestnut are very sticky. The buckeye is not resinous.

The horse chestnut has a pink-yellow flower. The buckeye is yellow-green.

Not every blossom on a buckeye produces a seed, only those at the base of the cluster. The blossoms attract many bees. Buckeyes are self-pollinating.

The buckeye tree has a round shape. Its branches tend to be compact and dense and are often curved, shaped by the wind.

The buckeye is one of the first trees in this area to leaf out and makes an excellent shade tree. Buckeyes tolerate lots of water and grow well near riverbanks.

The wood of the buckeye is white if harvested in winter and yellowish if cut in summer.

The buckeye tree was instrumental in Ohio's early development. Though the wood of the buckeye is not the best building material, it has one important feature.

It is a soft, light wood and is, therefore, easy to work with. That was no small consideration on the frontier in the late 18th and early 19th centuries when poor transportation meant that a broken axe or saw might take weeks or months to replace.

Many of the first log cabins were made from buckeye trees. On those occasions when there was armed conflict between the Indians and settlers, the buckeye came to the rescue.

The buckeye's wood retains moisture and is therefore fire-resistant. Flaming arrows didn't so quickly catch cabins built from the buckeye trees on fire.

This also meant fewer accidental fires from hearths, ovens or fire places.

Buckeye wood was also used for furniture and kitchen utensils. Buckeyes were also used to make paper pulp.

Native Americans found other uses for the buckeye. They used the buckeye's nut to augment their food supply. No, they didn't eat them. The nut of the buckeye is mildly poisonous.

The Indians crushed buckeyes and threw them in rivers and lakes. Unsuspecting fish ate little pieces. The poison disabled the fish long enough to make them an easy catch.

Buckeyes were also considered useful in treating arthritis. The basis for this is that the poison in the buckeye nut contains an inflammatory agent which promotes blood flow and relieves discomfort.

Buckeyes are among the trees planted on the grounds of the Statehouse in Columbus. Rutherford B. Hayes of Fremont planted Buckeyes on the grounds of the White House during his presidency (1877-81).

Hayes is also responsible for OSU's nickname since he was instrumental in the founding of Ohio State University.

The buckeye is also incorporated into Ohio's flag. The red circle in the center represents the buckeye nut.

Kent estimates that Ohio only has approximately 5 percent of the number of buckeye trees it had in 1800.

The buckeyes were out of favor with farmers who cut many of them down in the 1880s because livestock would eat the nuts and become sick.

So now we can all sleep easier knowing why we are the Buckeyes and not the Horse Chestnuts.

(Kent Hoiles) is using the Ohio Bicentennial to preserve the buckeye and make people better informed about our state tree. Anyone interested in a presentation, including trhe opportunity to purchase his video or a buckeye sapling, can call him at 419-457-5303 or send an E-mail to