By Jeff Zeringue
Sometimes the Aesculus pavia is referred to as the firecracker plant likely for the collection of small bright red flowers that form on a single branch. Another common name for this species is the red buckeye, which is a native tree that spans from North Carolina to Texas.
On Avery Island, which sits atop a salt dome in Iberia Parish that is 163 feet above sea level at its highest point and almost an anomaly in the flat wetlands of South Louisiana, is home to the state’s new champion red buckeye tree.
It is one of six trees to be added to the list of Louisiana Champion Trees this year.
“The tree is so large that most people would be clueless that you were walking under a red buckeye,” said Garrie Landry, who taught botany at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette for several years before retiring in 2016. Following that retirement, the McIlhenny Co. hired him as the company botanist.
Landry said the tree was discovered by Mike Richard of nearby Jefferson Island, who pointed it out to Landry last year. Although Avery Island is well-known for its propagation of Louisiana-native plant species, Edward A. McIlhenny also imported several plant varieties to propagate on the island.
“I don’t believe (the champion red buckeye) is a cultivated plant,” Landry said, “and I say that because of the size of the tree. ... It’s not planted in a place to be displayed. There’s no easy access.”
That part of Jungle Gardens wasn’t established until about 1912, Landry said.
“I really wish we could determine (its age) without causing any injury to the tree, but I estimate it’s more than 100 years old,” he said. “I think it was there in the late 1800s at least.”
The species is a native to Louisiana and is proliferant near Landry’s childhood home in Franklin, just east of Avery Island. There also are several red buckeye trees in the vicinity of the new champion but none as big.
“It appears to be in good health,” he said. “It flowers profusely and has many seeds.”
The tree is accessible to the public, but there is an admission fee of $8 to enter the 170-acre Jungle Gardens, which includes the botanical garden and bird sanctuary.
At least one of the other five trees has been brought to the attention of the Louisiana Forestry Association through John Michael Kelley, a self-described autodidact biologist who has trekked across Louisiana’s forests.
“I’m really looking for old-growth forests,” Kelley said, “and successfully, I might add.”
During one such excursion at the Caroline Dormon Nature Preserve in northern Natchitoches Parish, Kelley discovered a new co-champion long leaf pine tree. It was found prior to last year’s tornado that damaged much of the preserve. Despite the destruction, the tree was spared.
In his search for old-growth forests, Kelley said he always seeks permission from the landowners. As an example, Kelley said he searches through old land sales and 16th section land, which has led him to discover hundreds of acres of old-growth forests in Louisiana.
“No one really turns me down unless they’re too old to hear me over the phone,” Kelley quipped, adding that he has received favorable response from landowners once he explains that he hopes to perform an inventory of what is there.
The inventory report is sent to the Louisiana National Heritage Program and the forest landowner, which will include notes on conservation of various species. He said he hopes the notes will help landowners who do manage their forests to make sure they are achieving their conservation goals. For those landowners who don’t manage their forest, Kelley said he hopes his report gives them reason to start.
In addition to the National Heritage Program, Kelley also works through the Louisiana Purchase Cypress Legacy Foundation, founded by Harvey Stern of New Orleans. Its goal, according to its website, is to “inventory, landmark and promote the stewardship of cypress trees in Louisiana that are over 200 years old — alive at the time of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.”