California Buckeye: Survivalist Beauty, but Foreign Appetites Beware

The California buckeye (Aesculus californica) is the smart spring bride of the dry canyons of the central coast ranges and Sierra Nevada mountains to about 4,000 feet. She throws a showy party but knows dry times are coming, ends it early, and is picky about whom she serves.

Range of the California buckeye Aesculus californica which is endemic to California. Image: USGS
Range of the California buckeye, Aesculus californica, which is endemic to California. Image: USGS

The entire life strategy of the California buckeye optimizes for economical water use. It is the first shrub (small tree) to leaf out every year and grows rapidly in the wet winter and spring months when its neighbors are still dormant. It finishes its creamy, fragrant floral show by the end of June, loses all its leaves, and then enters dormancy by mid- to late summer, although in cooler coastal climates the leaves might hang on until fall. The bark, leaves, and large eye-catching seeds are toxic to most animals. The pollen and nectar, although safe to many butterflies, hummingbirds, and native honeybees, make non-native bees sick, so that it’s a common problem for beekeepers. A “buckeyed-bee” hatches with deformed legs, body, and crippled wings.

Late May into early June is a great time to spot the California buckeye when it’s in its full flowering glory.

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I really enjoy field trips. I love being in a cool place and having someone tell me about it. The problem is, you can’t always find a professor or park ranger-type to tell you all they know about the local rocks, plants, and history. So I decided to combine my love of things natural with mobile technology.

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