Four buckeyes, all California natives, have settled on El Camino Real between Howard and Ralston avenues. They are dwarfed by another Californian, the live oak, and the adopted Burlingame favorite, the towering blue gum eucalyptus from Australia.
On the wild hillsides, buckeyes have a roundish shape, with low branches spreading like spokes of an umbrella, looking like overgrown shrubs. Those in Burlingame, however, have been pruned into tall shapes, away from the sidewalks and busy city streets. Curvy contorted trunks support the branches with stalks of showy clusters of blossoms.
Looking closely at the blended colors from pink to yellowish-white and the jumble of petals and stamens, I counted over 250 flowers per stalk. I was impressed by that number multiplied by all the clusters high and low. The fragrance spilled out, but it was not a sweet or pleasant smell.
The nectar and pollen is toxic to some insects and honeybees, but hummingbirds and butterflies flock to the flowers. Once one flower on one stalk is pollinated, a chemical reaction prevents the others on the stalk from getting pollinated. The result is one fruit per stalk of flowers. But the pear-shaped fruit is two to three inches long and quite heavy with a large shiny nut filling the inside. Perhaps that is why the buckeye developed this adaptation.
Look for these buckeyes as you drive by this month, because they will be losing their leaves in summer. This interesting adaptation is related to the normally very dry California summers. But the fruits will be ripening on the bare branches, growing bigger until they split open and reveal a shiny brown nut, that looks very much like a buck’s eye. Perhaps that is where the tree got its name.