How to grow Ohio Buckeye trees from seed

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Ohio Buckeye seed and leaves.
Ohio Buckeye seed, via Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

Growing up, my brother and I spent most of our time outside on my grandparents’ farm. Climbing trees, swimming in the pond, playing hide and seek, riding on the hay wagon — it seemed like there were endless activities. We were never short on things to do or ways to pass time.

One year we decided to collect the buckeyes that dropped into the front yard. Some still had spiked, green husks on them protecting the seeds inside. Others had shed their outer layer to reveal a smooth, brown seed. We even found a couple seeds that were already beginning to root.

We collected and deposited our treasures in a green five-gallon bucket, before showing our dad the cream of the crop. We pulled the largest and shiniest and smoothest from the bucket, as he commented on their individual qualities. And then we decided to show him the ugliest seeds.

I remember saving the two with thick green tails in my coat pocket. As my dirty hand emerged, the excitement on his face was clear. We gave one to an uncle and saved the other.

My uncle’s seed rotted, but we managed to grow a seedling to plant outside the following spring — a feat that alluded my family so many times before. I remember the tiny tree grew about eight inches tall before my mom forgot to mow around it. I was so crushed over the months of hard work that were lost.

After that, my grandparents’ buckeye tree took a turn for the worst. It’s still standing, but it doesn’t produce fruit like it did during my childhood. There was never another fall with the bounty we had that year. However, I still wanted my parents to have a buckeye tree of their own.

My mom is on her third sapling, but this one is taller than me, so I’m confident it’ll be around for a while. Who knows, it may even live to reach maturity in the next few years and start producing fruit. Maybe my daughter will want to grow an Ohio Buckeye tree for our house.

Gathering seeds

The Ohio Buckeye is dispersed throughout the Midwest, growing mostly near streams and rivers in western Pennsylvania, Ohio, and southern Michigan. In The Buckeye State, finding a buckeye nut is considered good luck.

The tree is easily distinguished by its leaves and fruit. Each leaf has five leaflets. Each fruit contains one to three seeds, with a spiky golden brown to green husk encasing them.

The perfect time to collect seeds is during September and October when they begin dropping from mature trees. You can pick them up off the ground or harvest them by cutting them off the tree. The seeds near the base of the branches are preferred as they are more likely to be fertile.

Processing seeds

Once you’ve collected your seeds, you need to remove the husks if they haven’t already split open and released the nuts inside. You can accomplish this by storing them in a cool place until the capsules split open on their own. Then you can remove the shiny brown seeds, and choose to plant them outside in the fall or grow them inside over winter.

If you decide to grow them over winter, place them in a bag or bucket filled with moist (not wet) peat moss. Make sure each nut is completely surrounded, not touching the side of the container or the other nuts. Then place them in the refrigerator to stratify for 120 days at 41 F.

Once the stratification period is up and the seeds have had time to germinate, they can be planted indoors.

Planting

After you’ve moved the buckeyes from cold storage, plant them one to two inches deep in moist, well-drained soil and place them in a warm, sunny windowsill. Buckeyes can rot in compacted soils, so using a growing medium that promotes aeration is a good idea.

Seedlings should be ready to plant outside by mid-May after the last frost. However, before moving your seedlings outside, you want to transition them by placing them outside during the day, gradually introducing them to the elements.

When choosing a location to plant them, you want to consider the needs of the tree. Ohio Buckeyes prefer well-drained, moist, but not wet, soil in partially shaded environments. Choosing a spot near the outskirts of your yard where seedlings can benefit from early morning light and be protected from the hot afternoon sun works best.

Once you’ve chosen a location for your seedlings, you want to make sure you have enough room to space your holes 30 to 40 feet apart to give them room for growth. Next, dig your holes twice as large as the root balls of your seedlings. Before placing them into the holes, remove the remaining nut shells that are attached to their roots to help prevent animals from digging them up.

Once you’ve planted your seedlings, make sure the soil remains moist, but don’t overwater them. They shouldn’t be fertilized during their first year unless there is a problem, so sit back and watch them grow. With any luck, your seedlings will reach maturity and produce fruit of their own in about eight years.

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Sara is Farm and Dairy’s online content producer. Raised in Portage County, Ohio, she earned a magazine journalism degree from Kent State University. She enjoys spending time with her daughter, traveling, writing, reading and outdoor recreation.

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