Bottlebrush buckeye

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Flowers of bottlebrush buckeye. Judging by the length of the inflorescence, this is probably Aesculus parviflora var. serotina.

I first became aware of Aesculus parviflora, the bottlebrush buckeye, while reading Rick Darke’s gorgeous book The American Woodland Garden (Timber Press, 2002).  Darke shows large, mounding shrubs covered with white wands that look fantastic at the edge of a lawn or among tall tree trunks.  I envisioned an arc of shrubs, eventually growing into a single mass, at the southeastern edge of my garden.  When viewed from the living room windows, they would create a visual frame at the bottom of the lawn, separating it from the vertical trunks of the pine trees beyond.

Well, we’re not there yet.

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Part of the problem is that I seem to have obtained Aesulus parviflora var. serotina which has very long, spectacular inflorescences (up to 60 cm long on my plants) but which tends to grow more upright and doesn’t always have leafy branches down to the ground.  However, the main difficulty is that the place where I wanted them is not the best spot for growing them.  The ground is some of the driest, hardest, poorest soil in the garden, and it seems to be where gravel was dumped during construction of the septic system.  The southeastern edge of the lawn is shaded in the morning but bakes in the sun during the late afternoon, the hottest part of the day.  Grass has pretty much given up, and the “lawn” here consists largely of moss and pine needles.

Despite these difficulties, the A. parviflora that I planted eight years ago now bloom reliably and slowly grow larger.  What I really need to do is edit out some of the tree saplings and brambles that have sprouted among and in front of them.  I’ll dig up the young willow oaks and tulip poplars, but I think the sourwood at the front of the buckeyes can stay.  I hate to destroy such a beautiful and bee-friendly native tree, and once mature, I think its white flowers will complement the buckeyes quite nicely.  I’ll try limbing it up as it grows, until all of its branches are well above the buckeyes.  Then, regular application of a good thick layer of hardwood mulch should help the soil and inhibit sprouting of new saplings.  Maybe in five or ten more years, I’ll have something similar to the pictures in Darke’s book.

Aesculus parviflora is another native-but-not-really plant.  It has a limited range, primarily in Alabama, but is cultivated more widely.  USDA shows it as having a disjunct native range that also includes Pennsylvania and New Jersey, but BONAP’s North American Plant Atlas suggests that the northern records are of naturalized plants.  The flowers attract bees, butterflies, hummingbird clearwing moths (Hemaris thysbe), and the occasional hummingbird, making them ideal for gardeners who care about pollinators and local wildlife.  The plants seem to be generally pest-free, although Japanese beetles do like to munch on the flowers.  Unfortunately, flowering in North Carolina coincides with the peak of beetle season.

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