Falling buckeyes are a sign autumn is almost here

September 16, 2006|By ROB KASPER

It is not officially autumn until next weekend, but already the buckeye tree is sending signals that fall is on top of us.

This week, as I walked down the alley behind my house and headed toward my neighborhood polling place, there were plenty of signs of the fall season. The political pamphleteers were perched along a stretch of Mosher Street sidewalk like birds on a wire. Some of them will return, like migrating snow geese, for the general election in November. The squirrels were busy, dancing down the utility wires, fattening up for the winter. And the buckeye tree was dropping its seed.

After voting by touching an electronic screen, I sought out a more tactile token of fall. I walked back to the tree and searched the ground for a buckeye that the squirrels might have missed.

I found one, still clad in its spiky outer coating, a coating that makes this seed look like a horrible weapon of war. I popped open the pod and the smooth brown sphere, the buckeye, appeared. I felt, as I did when I was a boy, like I had found a treasure.

Buckeyes are not considered edible. Many moons ago, Native Americans supposedly made a buckeye mash by roasting and smashing the nuts. The window of edible opportunity apparently is very short for buckeyes. They quickly turn toxic. Nowadays only the squirrels or other wildlife feast on them.

While buckeyes aren't delectable, they have their powers. Wearing one around your neck as an amulet can bring you good luck, or so the folklore says. Carrying one in your pocket can relieve the pain of arthritis, the storytellers say. Rubbing the smooth sides of a buckeye feels good and is strangely soothing.

Moreover, from a kid's viewpoint, buckeyes have other uses. "They are ammo!" said Steven W. Koehn, the Maryland state forester. As a kid, having a buckeye tree in your yard meant you had a ready supply of ammunition to hurl at your brother or other predators, he said.

British children, I read, play a kinder autumnal game called "Conkers" with horse chestnuts, which are close relatives of buckeyes. They drill a hole through a worthy nut, fasten it with a piece of string, and then try to pulverize an opponent's similarly strung-up nut or "conker."

There are many methods of hardening a conker. They include soaking it in vinegar, baking it in the oven or letting it age for a year. I found details of this game on a Web page (woodlands-junior.kent.sch.uk/customs/conkers.html) operated by an English school promoting traditional British games.

Koehn, the forester, said buckeye trees are relatively common in the western part of Maryland. "They run along the backbone of the Appalachians, in Garrett, Washington and Allegany counties," he said. Most of the buckeye trees found in other parts of the state were probably planted by people who appreciated the trees' decorative value, he said.

"Buckeyes have a very showy flower in the spring, and it, along with magnolias, were often planted on Maryland estates," he said. They also provide excellent shade, he said, but their leaves are among the first to drop in the fall.

Ohio, not Maryland, is known as the Buckeye State. There are two stories about how the state got this nickname, according to the Ohio Forestry Web site.

One tale is that a high sheriff named Col. Ebenezer Sproat made a big impression on the Native Americans there in 1788 when he marched in to set up the first court near Marietta, in the land that was then known as the Northwest Territory. The Indians dubbed him "Hetuch," their name for the eye of the deer. The name stuck and Sproat became known as the "Big Buckeye." Eventually the name was passed on, the story goes, to other Ohioans and to the state.

The other, less-colorful, explanation is that the name refers to the large number of buckeye trees native to Ohio.

Everyone agrees that the tree nut was given the name "buckeye" because it resembles the eye of a buck deer.

I will have to take their word on that buck deer business. I haven't gone eye-to-eye with any deer while wandering the streets of my city neighborhood, Bolton Hill.

But I have found buckeye trees. There are several in the 1500 block of Bolton St. I stopped there the other day and picked up a couple buckeyes. I like to have one in my desk drawer, to rub for good luck, to weather the seasons.


Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.