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Buckeye trees’ influence felt in Sonoma County place names

Buckeye Knob is the unofficial name for a knoll on the south end of Sonoma Mountain’s main ridge. It’s especially prominent as you travel north into Sonoma Valley on Highway 121. It got its name from the fact that the land is home to a number of buckeye trees; in some places they grow close together, forming “Buckeye Orchards.” An old name for Sonoma Mountain is oona-pa’is, which can possibly be translated as “Buckeye Mountain.” Elsewhere in the county there’s a Buckeye Spring south of Geyser Peak, three Buckeye Creeks in the county’s northwest, and a Buckeye Mine in its northeast corner.

These names refer to a shrubby tree, the California Buckeye (Aesculus californica), found all over the county and much of the state as well. Buckeyes transform dramatically through the seasons - usually leafing out in February during our rainy season, later sending up tall white “candles” of aromatic blossoms in May or June, heralding the end of spring and the beginning of summer drought.

By August, in its own version of autumn, the buckeye pulls inward to save water. Its leaves turn yellow and drop, exposing twisting gray trunks and branches. Beautiful mahogany ‘buckeye’ fruits appear - their color resembling a buck’s eye. Hanging heavy from the tips of the branches, its easy (and always tempting) to set them swinging in crazy gyrations, like some fantastic comical tree out of Doctor Seuss.

While squirrels and chipmunks can eat raw buckeyes, they are poisonous to other animals. Native peoples used them to stun fish by throwing mashed up buckeyes into a creek and catching them as they floated to the surface. Buckeyes also provided plentiful backup food if the acorn crop failed. Making them safe to eat was a laborious process that involved roasting, peeling and mashing the fruits before leaching the results in cold water for 18 hours to remove the poison.

Boiling water for acorn soup, a staple in those days, also was somewhat dependent on the buckeye, whose shoots were favored for making fire drills. Twirled between the hands or rotated with a small bow drawn back and forth, the shaft fit into a shallow indentation in another piece of buckeye wood called the hearth. Enough friction was created to ignite a spark which could be coaxed into a full-fledged fire.

Bees, too, find buckeye flowers poisonous, though hummingbirds will feast on the nectar. This connection is reflected in a tale recounted in “Dawn of the World: Stories Told by the Coast Miwok Indians” (note that ‘Coast Miwok’ is a division created by linguists and not necessarily recognized by local tribes). When Hummingbird stole a spark of the sun’s fire, he tucked it under his chin, then put it into the buckeye so humans could make fire for themselves. The orange-red glow of that spark is still visible on the chin of several of our local hummingbird species.

In late January, the buckeye stands leafless, apparently devoid of life. But beneath the gray bark, something is awakening. Within a few weeks, the first leaves will begin to unfurl like green sparks celebrating the beginning of a new year.

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