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Living Lightly

Rivers of Birds, Forests of Tules:  Central Valley Nature & Culture in Season

By Lillian Vallee

30. Lucky Buckeyes

In Poland this past autumn we would often see individuals with overflowing baskets of wild mushrooms, so we asked some young men where we could buy them. They looked genuinely puzzled, “Buy them? Why don’t you just go get some in the woods?” They took for granted a body of knowledge passed on to them by parents and grandparents during countless trips into local forests, still so much a part of their lives that they considered our wanting to buy mushrooms the result of a certain ineptitude. Later, we did go gathering with seasoned mushroom hunters and got good at spotting the easy ones and going down the list of features separating the edible from the poisonous, but we were out of our league when it came to the lesser known (and often far more delicious) mushrooms visible only to an experienced eye.

Our kindly neighbors brought us small jars of these rare mushrooms or of bronze-colored buckwheat honey from a local apiary. They gave us potatoes straight out of the dirt, milk from that morning’s milking, and fresh eggs; they took pride in what they could gather or make or grow or raise, and looked down on anything that was store bought but could be made at home. Since money was scarce, they valued skills and knowledge, especially knowledge about the natural world, their ally in survival. They were not a people easily impressed.

I thought about them and how much I missed that personal transmission of knowledge when I got back to Modesto and resumed walks along Dry Creek. Handsome California buckeyes (Aesculus californica) were just dropping their large brown seeds, and I wished there were someone to tell me more about them. I slipped one into my pocket (some people believe they bring you luck) and headed home to hit the books.

Buckeyes are irresistible: the smooth seeds with light eyespots (reminiscent of deer eyes) are pleasant to handle and if there is someone walking with me during buckeye season, a mild skirmish breaks out as we pelt each other with mahogany nuts. Some books call buckeye nuts “conkers” because a ripe one might drop out of its grainy, pear-shaped pod onto your head as you pass, but buckeye lovers (and kids) know the real story: most of the buckeye conking happens through ordinary, mischief-making human agency.

The California buckeye, with its palmate leaves, tall spikes of orchid-like blossoms, shiny mahogany nuts, and drought-deciduous habits, is a remnant from prehistoric (tropical) times in California. The bounty of seeds, also called “horse chestnuts,” makes you want to do something with them — cook them up or show them off before they lose their gloss. The authoritative Jepson Manual, Higher Plants of California, will tell you that buckeyes are “ill-smelling” and that all parts are TOXIC, that Native Americans used the ground seed as a fish poison and that the nectar and pollen are deadly to honeybees (Apis mellifera). This rather terse and slightly disparaging designation deserves qualification by other, more lyrical, sources because buckeyes have many charming traits, often missing from book descriptions. Donald Culross Peattie referred to the buckeye as “that oddly lovely little tree.”

California’s native peoples roasted and leached buckeyes to remove the toxin (aesculin); they used buckeye wood for bowls, hearths and fire drills. And while California Indians also mashed the leaves and nuts to stun fish in shallow water, Edith Van Allen Murphey notes that if the fish are transferred to fresh water, “they recover, unharmed.”

Buckeyes rarely dominate any forest stand, content to be a component in the understory. They leaf out early to take advantage of sunlight they might not get later in the season in deciduous groves. Buckeye toxins protect them, in this early stage, from being devoured by grazers hungry for fresh greens. By the time the other trees have leafed out, buckeyes are ready to rest, and, without water, to drop their leaves. Botanist Lester Rowntree praised their “beautifully arranged boughs,” and “lines” in summer. Buckeye wood once made long-lasting fence posts and its seeds were used in a library paste to repel bookworms. Author and herbalist Michael Moore describes how mild buckeye tinctures and salves have been used to strengthen capillaries and provide some relief for varicose veins.

Buckeye blossoms are not harmful to native bees and other insects relied upon by local and migratory birds as an early protein source. According to the authors of The California Landscape Garden, buckeyes are “a very significant late-spring nectar source for many butterflies and a larval host for some.” Hummingbirds and squirrels also make use of buckeyes.

As I write this, the tips of buckeye branches are swelling before they burst into leaf and the “candelabra-like spires” appear. If you have never seen buckeye groves unfold their leaves and light their candles in Dry Creek Park in a show some consider “almost surrealistic in its beauty,” you have missed one of the park’s early spring glories.

There is another buckeye in California that happens to be a butterfly. The Common Buckeye, Junonia coenia, also received its name from the large eye spots mimicking real buck eyes. The adults live for only ten days, apparently “patrolling for females along trails and fire roads in grassy or weedy areas.”

This January we could do worse than to wish ourselves a lucky buckeye in the pocket; a community which values not what we have but what we know and do; and a life lived as if we had only ten days to patrol the trails and fire roads.

Sources: MaryRuth Casebeer, Discover California Shrubs; Michael Moore, Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West; Edith Van Allen Murphey, Indian Uses of Native Plants; Lester Rowntree, Flowering Shrubs of California; Donald Culross Peattie, A Natural History of Western Trees; Bob Stewart, Common Butterflies of California; and Guy Sternberg with Jim Wilson, Native Trees for North American Landscapes

[Illustration added by editor]: McMinn, Howard E. and Evelyn Maino. 1951. An illustrated manual of Pacific coast trees; with lists of trees recommended for various uses on the Pacific coast by H. W. Shepherd. 2d ed. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press