How the buckeye got its name
Once I learned that chocolate-covered, peanut butter candies were called moose eyes by folks in the northeast, I began to wonder how the candy really got its name in my neck of the woods.
I imagined that it was because the sweet confections look just like the buckeye nuts that fall to the ground along the creek. I love to pick up few of the nuts, run them through my fingers, and put them in my pockets. I enjoy reaching down to feel their smoothness. I once met a fellow who told me he always carried a buckeye in his pocket, and had done so for years. He considered it his good luck talisman. So, yes, I figured that the buckeye candy was named after its look-alike buckeye nut.
The creek valley is filled with buckeye trees. They are always the first to bud each spring. It is hard not to notice the swollen reddish buds at the end of the smaller branches, and then, almost as I watch, the buds quickly unfurl into tiny red feathered leaves that reach out and turn green and quickly grow longer, five leaves to a cluster. The oval-shaped leaves easily reach six inches in length. When a wind blows up the valley from the river, the leaf clusters flutter like fans.
Buckeye trees are also the first of the valley trees to die back, turning yellow, often in the middle of summer. The weather might still be hot and humid, but the yellowing trees remind me that summer will not last forever, and that fall will soon be on its way. When their leaves finally drop to the ground, the large nut hulls drop beside them.
I often find two or three of the smooth brown nuts inside each hull. It is easy to sort through them and put only the very best nuts in my pocket, and so, for the past 20 years, I have imagined that the sweet, peanut butter confection was named after these beautiful nuts, but now I began to wonder, how did the tree, and its nuts, get their name.
The answer struck me like lightening. Not a day goes by, that I don’t see deer grazing in our farm fields. I see their footprints in my garden. When I look out the kitchen window as I wash the dishes, I often see them wandering by, pausing to take a nibble here, another there, and as expected, our valley deer are amazingly sleek and fat.
Their ears stand tall, either side of their delicate faces, whenever they pause to listen for any sounds of alarm, and yes, they have big brown eyes. The does are somewhat smaller, and usually have their offspring in tow. The bucks are huge, barrel-chested chested creatures, growing their antlers throughout the summer, and dropping them as sheds in the late winter or early spring.
I could almost say that there are as many deer in the valley, as there are buckeye trees, though this is likely not correct, but I can say with certainly, that the buckeye tree was named because its nuts look just like big, brown buck eyes. I have no idea why this had not occurred to me before. It certainly was high time to learn more about this tree.
I learned that the buckeye tree’s preferred habitat is along stream banks and the edges of fields, thus their proliferation in the creek valley. They not only leaf out, but also burst into bloom each spring, with large clusters of off-white flowers that have a faintly sweet scent. Their wood, however, really has no good use. It is soft and burns fast and hot, and so we have learned to bother harvesting it for use it to heat our home.
I also learned that some folks believe carrying the nuts in their pockets will help alleviate arthritis pain. This is theoretically due to the nuts’ high tannin content, and it is this tannin that makes the nuts inedible, and actually quite poisonous. The valley’s indigenous people even took advantage of this and would sprinkle ground nuts into the creek’s fishing holes to poison the fish for easy catching. They also boiled the nuts and used the tannic acid infused water to tan deer hides, and yes, they strung the dried nuts to wear as necklaces, much as certain college students do today.
So, while the chocolate-covered, peanut butter candy may well be called moose eyes in the northeast, hereabouts they are called buckeyes. Perhaps I ought to drive back across the mountains and stop back by that antique store and let the fellow behind the counter know that moose eyes and buckeyes really are not that different after all. While moose wander across the mountains of the northeast, deer wander along the hillsides of the creek valley.
Christine Tailer is an attorney and former city dweller who moved several years ago, with her husband, Greg, to an off-grid farm in Ohio south-central Ohio. Visit them on the web at straightcreekvalleyfarm.com.