Buckeyes aren’t pretty. They don’t need to be. A buckeye does its best work if it’s inside your pocket. If you carry a buckeye in your pocket, it’ll bring you good luck. Just like a rabbit’s foot or a horseshoe or a four-leaf clover, the buckeye attracts good fortune.
When you first put one in your pocket, in the fall, right after the nut-like seed has ripened, the buckeye is smooth and round. About the size of a prune, the buckeye has a rich, brown color, similar to the wood of a cherry tree. The small, tan spot on it gives it its name.
As the buckeye ages — as it travels in your pocket, giving you something to twist in your fingers when you’re nervous or something to squeeze for hope when you have a bad day — it shrivels. The surface wrinkles. Pits form. It becomes misshapen. But it won’t rot. The buckeye stays with you.
If you lose it, it’s easy enough to find another. The native buckeye plant, which produces the inedible nut in your pocket, grows statewide. People in the mountains know it as a tree. The yellow buckeye, Aesculus flava, grows up to 70 feet. In the Piedmont, the painted buckeye, Aesculus sylvatica, is a shrub, only five to 12 feet. Both species produce yellowish flowers.
In the Coastal Plain, the red buckeye, Aesculus pavia, is one of the first blooms to signal spring. Its red, bell-shaped flowers emerge the same time as ruby-throated hummingbirds return for its nectar.
Will Cook, an associate in research at Duke University, has spent more than 20 years photographing and documenting native plants and animals, like ruby-throated hummingbirds and buckeyes. He knows where each buckeye species grows, what distinguishing characteristics it has, and when to expect its blooms and fruit. He isn’t as familiar with its good-luck qualities, though. He might have heard that, he says.
The powers of this odd little nut aren’t scientific. Just like rabbit’s feet and horseshoes and four-leaf clovers, the buckeye has its doubters. But if your day is going wrong or your anxiety is getting high, it’s comforting to reach in your pocket and feel something familiar. To feel the wrinkles and the pits. To think about where this little buckeye came from and where it’s been. To take your mind away from your worries and give it the freedom to hope for something good.