It's pretty, it's native, and it's easy.

By Steve Bender
Bottlebrush Buckeye Shrub Next to Bottle Tree
Credit: Steve Bender

No, I'm not taking about the bottle tree, even though its genuine cobalt-blue Milk of Magnesia bottles are spectacular. I'm referring to the flowering shrub beside it that is one of the best choices for shade. It's called bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora). One look at the blooms tells you how it got its name.

Native to the Southeast, bottlebrush buckeye is a slowly suckering bush (but not invasive) that forms small colonies. It grows at a moderate pace into a mound of stems about 10 to 15 feet fall. In late spring or summer, depending on where you live, showy, foot-long spikes of tubular, white flowers with red anthers rise above the leaves. Pollinators like them. Inedible nuts called buckeyes form after the flowers fade. (Ohio State fans are also inedible nuts, but instead of blooming, they swill Leinenkugel beer. Not that there's anything wrong with that.)


I favor plants that offer either long seasons of interest or multiple seasons. Bottlebrush buckeye doesn't fail. In fall, its deep-green, palmate (arranged like the fingers of your hand) leaves change to bright yellow. I can't think of any shrub that beats its fall color in shade. In my garden, it grows in the company of hostas, ferns, fothergilla, variegated Solomon's seal, Jack-in-the-pulpit, Indian pink, and dwarf pawpaw.

Bottlebrush buckeye likes moist, well-drained soil that contains a good bit of organic matter. In extended summer drought, some leaves will prematurely turn yellow and drop. Don't worry – it isn't dying. Just water it until it perks up. I've observed no serious insect or disease pests with this plant. It thrives in USDA Zones 5 to 9. Look for potted plants at local garden centers. You can also order it online from Mail Order Natives, but due to summer heat, you'll have to wait until fall for shipment.

Now stop ogling my bottle tree. You can't have it.