GREEN THOUGHTS: A brush with greatness

SOMETIMES THE WORST GARDEN DISASTERS create happy endings. This was the case for our Norway spruce. A towering giant, it was hit by lightning in July 2015, giving it a fatal trunk crack from top to bottom. While I was glad the tree took the jolt rather than the house, its removal left an ugly blank patch which quickly started to fill with weeds. Faster than an American Pickers guest star at a tag sale, I started acquiring and installing new plants, including two winterberry hollies, a spicebush, a moosewood maple, and best of all, a bottlebrush buckeye.

If you look in your woods for bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus pavia) and don’t find it, please forgive me. I admit that calling it native is a bit of stretch, since the most extensive natural populations are found in central Alabama, with nary a sprig in New York. But get to know this outstanding woody ornamental, and you’ll be hooked, too. The Morton Arboretum calls it a handsome shrub with memorable flowers, while British botanist William Jackson Bean wrote, “no better plant could be recommended as a lawn shrub” and Wayside Gardens proclaims it “one of the best flowering shrubs for the summer.” While I freely admit that Wayside doesn’t go in for understatement regarding anything they sell, for an Englishman to give high praise to an American plant, it has to be good.

Bottlebrush buckeye. Photo contributed

So, let me tell you why bottlebrush buckeye is a plant of special merit. First, it has great foliage and form. Its medium green leaves are palmately compound, giving it a unique texture, and it develops into a dense mound 10 to 12 feet high and at least as wide. Unless you want to block the view out your first-floor windows, don’t plant one near your house. Instead, locate it on the margin between lawn and woodland, where it excels.

Bottlebrush might also be grown as a small tree, but the plant’s spreading nature would then require management, which seems a shame. Better to plant it someplace where you can let it branch to the ground and spread a bit. As garden writer Margaret Roach keystroked, “Give it plenty of room—and I mean plenty—and it will make a beloved companion for decades to come.”

Plantsman Michael Dirr wrote, “there are few summer flowering plants which can rival this species.” The delicate white flowers are borne in cylindrical panicles up to 18 inches tall, dozens of which will appear on a mature plant in late July. Although the name “bottlebrush” sounds a bit prosaic, it aptly describes the form of this floral display. The buckeye fruits, which are light brown nuts inside pear-shaped capsules, aren’t prolifically produced here in the north. Bottlebrush buckeye rarely needs pruning, unless planted too close to the house. Southern Living’s Steve Bender sums up by stating: “People often expect the prettiest plants to be a pain to grow, but that certainly isn’t the case here. Bottlebrush buckeye needs moist, well-drained soil and partial to full shade. That’s it.”

To contact David Chinery, horticulture educator for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Rensselaer County, email

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