Finding your luck, one buckeye at a time
I was a squirrel in another life… I’m sure of it. I’m home 20 feet up in an oak tree and I can’t get enough when it comes to buckeyes – ha! I don’t know what it is about these nuts, but I can’t walk by one without picking it up… and I always have one in my pocket while I’m hunting.
Maybe it goes back to my childhood. Sometimes in the fall, my parents would put my brother and I in our old pickup, drive across the pasture, clear down this rough, rocky terrain, across a creek and then through the timber would emerge this beautiful open grass bottom. That ride was fun enough itself, and that view stunning, but then on the edge of this field was our destination… a lone buckeye tree. It’s engraved into my mind and created an appreciation for this tree and nut that will last my lifetime.
Just like a rabbit’s foot, horseshoe or four-leaf clover, buckeyes are thought to attract good fortune from carrying one in your pocket or rubbing your thumb along it.
Native Americans believed it looked like a male deer’s eye, hence the name ‘buckeye.’ Each nut has it’s own characteristics, making them fun to collect, examine and compare. The smooth round buckeye has a beautiful gloss at first with unique rich, brown marbling. However, as the buckeye ages, it shrivels, the surface wrinkles, the gloss fades and the marbling becomes a deep, dark brown. It is said you can rub your favorite buckeye along the side of your nose to keep it oiled. While I haven’t tried that, you can apply lacquer to a dried buckeye to keep the gloss look.
Buckeye nuts come in a round or oblong spiny capsule and can commonly contain one, two, three, four or maybe even five buckeyes! Sometimes it’s great to see how many you can find in one shell, and sometimes it’s fun to hope for just one really large round one trying to find the biggest buckeye!
These spiny shells attached to the trees are very tight and hard early on, but as fall progresses, the shells start to soften, crack open and even drop to the ground.
Anytime in the fall is a good time to look for buckeyes, starting in September. It’s a great activity to bring friends and family, including young kids, as you enjoy a beautiful fall walk as you search.
Try Your Luck
Buckeye trees are a deciduous tree of the Horse Chestnut Family and native to Midwestern and Lower Great Plain regions in the United States, extending southeast into the Nashville Basin. Preferring moist and rich organic soil and shady conditions while young, buckeye trees are an understory tree primarily found in bottom lands.
One way of locating buckeyes is looking near low-lying ground for bare understory trees without leaves, as buckeye trees are the first to lose their leaves in the fall. If you plan ahead, you can also easily spot them in the spring as they are one of the first trees to leaf out in the spring, sporting showy yellow-green flowers. Their leaves palmate out in a group of five long, broad leaflets.
Unlike Any Other Nut
Unlike most nuts, buckeyes are actually poisonous, and squirrels are known as the only animal to consume them. The leaves are also toxic. Containing tannic acid, buckeye nuts cannot be eaten unless heated and leached.
Native Americans used to extract the tannic acid for making leather and ground the nut into a coarse powder, casting it into rivers and ponds to stun or kill fish. While none of these are practiced today, buckeyes can still be enjoyed.
Besides being just fun to find and collect, today, buckeyes are mainly dried and made into necklaces (for example, very popular for Ohio State University’s sporting events since they are known as the Buckeyes). I love to make Christmas ornaments out of them to give to family and friends with a small note about buckeyes – click the buckeye ornaments photo to see how I make them! ~JP