Its Mexican Buckeye Time
by Ro Wauer
Everything has its season, and now is the time that our local Mexican buckeyes are blooming. Although the buckeye tree is not all that impressive, the flowers that appear before the leaves emerge, are a gorgeous pink to purple. They look almost orchid-like. And although they are only an inch across, they produce a very pleasant fragrance.
Apparently bees, butterflies and various other insects also appreciate flowering buckeyes, as the buzzing of bees can usually be heard even from some distance away. On a couple of occasions I have watched a number of birds hovering nearby, undoubtedly preying on insects that are there for the nectar. In a sense, buckeyes flower at the same time as the spring migration, so it only makes sense that our northbound birds take advantage of a tree full of available prey.
Watching a series of flowering buckeye trees, I have been able to record a total of 15 butterfly species also taking advantage of the sweet flower nectar. Some of the most consistent species have been the pipevine swallowtail, gulf fritillary, and common buckeye. All three of these butterflies can occur in our area year-round. Pipevines are often abundant and it is not unusual to find a dozen or so nectaring on buckeye flowers. Gulf fritillaries seem less interested, but one can always find a few. And the common buckeyes seem to be more common at buckeye flowering time than usual. Maybe their name originated from their use of flowering buckeye trees.
Some of the other expected nectaring butterflies at the buckeye blooms include giant swallowtails, southern dogface, cloudless and large orange sulphurs, great purple and gray hairstreaks, red admirals, question marks, monarchs, queens, funereal duskywings, and the much smaller fiery skippers.
Our local Mexican buckeyes bloom in March and early April, and then the flowers fade and are replaced by bright green, 3 to 7 inch long leaves. By late summer fruit are obvious. These are 3–lobed capsules, 1 to 2 inches wide, and usually are cinnamon brown and woody. Inside the capsules are very hard, shiny black to brown seeds. These seeds are poisonous to most folks, although there are accounts of seeds being eaten with little effects. Native Americans utilized Mexican buckeye seeds in a number of ways. Southwestern Indians used the very hard seeds in necklaces as well as a hallucinogen.
It is a little sad to think that the buckeye flowering season is so short, and that most of the same species of wildlife will move elsewhere at the end of the blooms. But by then the trees will contain an abundance of leaves and some of our native birds will take advantage of the site for nesting. Cardinals, mourning doves, white-eyed vireos, and a few other species will then take their turns.