One of Blount County’s treasures

County Agent’s Corner

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on bottlebrush

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on bottlebrush

Blount County is blessed with an abundance of treasures if you know when and where to look. The treasure I am speaking of is our native plants. As a kid growing up, I spent a lot of time crawling over the hills and hollers around Guntersville State Park. I didn’t have a cell phone or a video game, so on Saturday, after cartoons went off, we would hit the woods. This was usually a fall or winter activity because we were busy fishing the rest of the year. I never took the opportunity to see plants that bloomed in the spring and early summer. They were hiding under the cover of winter while I was there.

During my tenure at Auburn University, I was required to take a Systematic Botany class under Dr. John Freeman. He opened my eyes to all the plants that today I think of as treasures. He put it this way, “Sometimes you can’t see the forest for the trees.” It took me a couple more years to get it, but it finally stuck. I have attempted to instill that same line of thought to Master Gardeners that I have taught through the years and anyone else that will listen.

Bottlebrush buckeye is one of my favorite natives. I didn’t spy this beauty until I came to Blount County. I first noticed it on the side of Schuff Mountain on an early morning late in May. I didn’t have a clue what it was, but I knew it had a magnificent white bloom. Then I noticed more on the creek off U.S. 231 at Easley and along the roadside just west of Oneonta. After close inspection and a bit of research, I determined it was a bottlebrush buckeye. I was familiar with the red buckeye, which is the most common buckeye, but had never noticed the bottlebrush in Marshall County. I still haven’t located a specimen there.

The bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora) is one of six native buckeyes in the United States. It is more of a shrub than other buckeyes, with a mounding, spreading growth habit. It can grow from 6 to 12 feet tall and spreads eventually to as much as 8 to 15 feet wide. Keep this in mind if you decide to plant a specimen; it will need plenty of room over time.

It is usually found in soils high in organic matter and consistent moisture. If this situation doesn’t occur naturally, soils can be amended to meet this requirement. Bottlebrush buckeyes are usually found in part shade and grow a little faster if exposed to some sunlight during the day. In a perfect world, early morning sunlight and afternoon shade would be great. It flowers in late May and June with tall plumes of white panicles. The bloom will last for about three weeks. The flowers are attractive to hummingbirds and butterflies, such as the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail seen in the picture at right. This picture was taken on June 28 on my specimen.

If you would like to have a plant to add to your landscape, you will need to search the Internet. If you know where to look, now is the perfect time to harvest ripened seed suitable for planting. Collect the seed and plant them in a container. To keep squirrels out, you may need to cover the surface of the containers with hardware cloth screen. Your plants should emerge next April. If it gets really cold, you may want to protect the containers by putting a cover over them or moving them up next to the house in a protected location.

Grow them out next summer or, if you know where you want to plant it, proceed with your small plant. They are fairly slow growing but worth the wait. You will be rewarded for your efforts in a few years.

Buckeyes are toxic plants, like many others in the landscape, so be sure to teach your children and/or grandchildren not to eat the leaves or the fruit. Deer will not touch it either so it is a good landscape plant if you have deer issues.

I like the red buckeye also. It blooms in mid-March, about the time hummingbirds are moving through Alabama to their Northern breeding grounds. It is an important food source for them, so you may want to plant a few red buckeye seed too. The seed are ready for harvest at this time as well. Red buckeye seed will germinate immediately. I recommend you mark your pots or seedlings so you will know which is which. Just remember they are slow growing but worth the wait to have one of Blount County’s treasures!

Dan Porch is County Extension Coordinator with the Blount County Extension Office. Dan lives in and loves Blount County and is available to answer your questions about conservation, agriculture, natural resources, and gardening. He can be reached at (205) 274-2129 or porchdw@aces.edu.