California Buckeye – A Toxic Native

photo credit: John Rusk

In late winter and early spring, the California Buckeye blooms with long strands of sweet smelling flowers. This early blooming season is a unique adaptation of the plant to its environment. Another is when it goes dormant; during arid summer months.

 

 

photo credit: Curtis Clark

Found nowhere else in the world, Aesculus Californica is a true California Native. 

photo credit: Halava – Distribution map for California Buckeye

In Nevada County, (Calif.), Buckeye bushes are found at lower elevations, in grasslands, and growing near oak trees and Ponderosa Pines.

Some beekeepers transport their bees to the valley when the Buckeye blooms because the flower pollen and nectar contain alkaloids. Alkaloids are toxic to honey bees. It’s not only the flowers that contain toxins, but the fruit, leaves, and shoots too.

Native Californians used the plant’s poison to their advantage. They ground nuts or hulls into a powder, throwing it into pools in the creek. Fish in those pools, stunned by the water additive, floated to the surface where they could be scooped out. (Toxins didn’t transfer to the person eating the fish.)

In seasons where acorns were not plentiful, Native Californians ate Buckeye nuts. They processed them like acorns, leaching out the bitterness and harmful substances before consuming it.

artist: A.R. Valentien

 

Nisenan tribal member
processing Buckeye nuts.

 

Resources:

Calflora – California buckeye, California horse chestnut

CalPhotos – Aesculus californica, California Buckeye

Pacific Horticulture – California Buckeye: A Tree for All Seasons (excellent photos)

Primitiveways.com – Fishing with Poisons

SFGATE – Not all plants are safe for bees – honey bee & California Buckeye

UC Master Gardener Program – California Buckeye

USDA – Natural Resources Conservation Service – California Buckeye PDF

Wikipedia – Aesculus californica

 

 

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