This Bud’s For You

There is April, in the swelling bud. There is Spring. There are the deep wonders of this season, not in the flower, but in the flower’s beginnings….the bud itself is the major miracle.

~Hal Borland, Sundial of the Seasons

One of my favorite plants to watch this time of year is the Painted Buckeye, Aesculus sylvatica. It is a common shrub in our woods, and one of the few things the deer don’t seem to bother. It is also our first shrub to leaf out in Spring. We walked the property this weekend, looking for signs of Spring and possible nest cavity trees. Along the way, I stopped to admire and document the various stages of buckeye buds. There is so much life and hope contained in a single bud. I think Spring is finally here…

Painted buckeye bud unopened

Painted buckeye bud, swollen, but unopened (click photos to enlarge)

Painted buckeye bud just opening

A bud that has split open


The twisted emerging leaves surround a developing flower stalk

Painted buckeye bud after opening

Bud scales peeling back and textured leaves emerging


Leaves beginning to unfurl

Painted buckeye with flower stalk

A flower cluster with a swirl of leaves around it

Painted buckeye leaves showing

The palmate leaves eventually spread out and continue to enlarge


Opening Acts – Leaves

If Spring came but once in a century, instead of once a year, or burst forth with the sound of an earthquake, and not in silence, what wonder and expectation there would be in all hearts to behold the miraculous change! 

~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

This past weekend, a few of us took a stroll on the property to see what might be stirring in these first few warm days of March. The tree canopy is still absent but things are stirring in the understory, or what is left of it here in this heavily deer-browsed habitat.

Eleagnus leaf out close up

Eleagnus leaf out (click photos to enlarge)

The exotic invasive shrub, Eleagnus umbellata, dominates several slopes on this property, creating thickets that are difficult, if not downright painful, to navigate.

Eleagnus leaf out

Eleagnus leaf out gives the understory in heavily infested areas a light green band about head high

It is starting to leaf out, giving the slopes a light green tint from 3 to 7 feet off the ground. Unfortunately, deer do not seem to browse on this plant except in times of severe food shortages, so it has become well-established in much of the Piedmont since its introduction to this country in the 1830’s. Eleagnus crowds and shades out many of our native plants, causing a reduction in the diversity of our woods.

Painted Buckeye buds

Painted Buckeye buds

But if you look closely, especially in the habitats approaching the creek bottoms or drainage areas, you will find one of the earliest native species to leaf out. Painted Buckeye, Aesculus sylvatica, is one of the dominant shrubs (or small trees depending on your viewpoint) in this part of the Piedmont. It begins to leaf out most years by mid-March, and last weekend it seemed to be right on schedule. The large terminal buds begin to swell noticeably in early March.

Painted Buckeye buds beginning to open

Painted Buckeye buds beginning to open

I love to observe and photograph the patterns of these beautiful buds and emerging leaves.

Painted Buckeye bud opening

Painted Buckeye terminal bud opening

Painted Buckeye bud opening 1

Texture and detail define a Painted Buckeye leaf out

The textures and details of buds as they swell and open are incredible and contain so many facets, if you give them a closer look.

Painted Buckeye buds opening up

Buckeye leaves reaching skyward

Then the leaves begin to emerge, looking like a cross between ancient carvings and elegant architecture.

Painted Buckeye flower bud

Painted Buckeye flower bud

On Sunday, only a few plants had the first hint of their yellow to cream-colored flower cluster peeking out from the umbrella of emerging leaves.

Painted Buckeye flower bud opening

After two days, many shrubs now have visible flower buds

I went back out yesterday, after two warm sunny days, and the buckeye landscape had changed dramatically. On my short walk I saw only one unopened bud. Now there are flower buds on many of the stout twigs.

Painted Buckeye leaves

Painted Buckeye leaves are distinctive

And the distinctive palmately divided leaves have unfurled on the majority of plants. Since most of the parts of a Painted Buckeye have toxic properties, it is resistant to browsing by deer and most other mammals. The flowers do provide a valuable early nectar source for bumblebees, butterflies, and the first hummingbirds arriving back in our area. Look for these unusual flower clusters the next couple of weeks throughout our region, and be sure to stop and admire this hardy native plant on your next woodland walk.