Ohio: Home of the Buckeye!
It’s not for nothing that Ohio, that Midwestern state positioned along the southern shore of the Great Lake of Erie, is nicknamed The Buckeye State. For Aesculus glabra — more commonly known as the Ohio buckeye, the American buckeye, or even the fetid buckeye — appears aplenty throughout Ohio’s rolling hills and dales. And that is why the buckeye is Ohio’s State Tree, even though the spread of the Ohio buckeye ranges from Ontario to the Nashville Basin.
A medium-sized deciduous tree (meaning one that loses its leaves each year), the mature Ohio buckeye can soar as high as 80+ feet, in an upright, irregularly globular crown of spreading palmate leaves spanning 30 feet or more. The trees broad dark leaves make room for spring flowers and rounded seedpods appearing throughout the summer. The spiky seedpods eventually split to reveal the nut-like seeds. Getting their name from their resemblance to a ‘buck’s eye’, those seeds are roughly golf-ball sized and dark brown with a pale dot of a whitish basal scar. Other trees of the Aesculus family are known throughout Europe as horse chestnuts for similar reason.
Though the nutty seeds of the buckeye are plentiful upon the ground in fall, they contain tannic acid, and are thus poisonous to cattle, and noxious or worse to humans. Early Ohio native tribes would extract that tannic acid by blanching, for subsequent use in the tanning of leather.
Ohioans still eat their buckeyes, however: a popular local confection is that of a peanut butter fudge ball rolled in milk chocolate to resemble the buckeye. Malley’s Chocolates of the Greater Cleveland area specializes in making a popular chocolate buckeye candy, especially to mark key events of the annual season of the Ohio State University Buckeye Football Team. (If you’re ever at an OSU Football game, keep your eyes peeled at half-time for the romping team mascot with the round brown head, Brutus Buckeye.)
Ohioans have also long been referred to as Buckeyes themselves. Legend has it that one of the co-founders of Ohio’s earliest city of Marietta, the tall and imposing Colonel Ebenezer Sproat (1752-1805), so greatly impressed the local Native Americans that they called him Hetuck, meaning Eye of the Big Buck deer. The name of Buckeye was also later granted to William Henry Harrison, future ninth President of the U.S., during his tenure in Congress in the 1810s.
The Buckeye name has since been attached to many entities throughout the State of Ohio, including a passenger train that ran between Cleveland and Pittsburgh, the Ohio breed of Buckeye chickens, the T-2 Buckeye trainer aircraft produced by the North American plant in the state capitol city of Columbus, and many of the athletic teams of schools throughout the state (such as those of Nelsonville-York High School in Nelsonville, Ohio).
One of the cherished summertime memories of many an Ohio childhood was collecting scores of the hard buckeyes from backyards and treelawns. Whether converted into slingshot ammunition, firecracker victim, creek skipper, neck-cord amulet or school diorama component, the ubiquitous buckeye proved endearingly handy.
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