The lowliest hardwood there is

Lumbermen have few nice words for the wood of the sweet buckeye (Aesculus octandra) that grows from Pennsylvania through the South and west to Oklahoma. That's because this light-colored, featureless hardwood that some call yellow buckeye ranks below softwoods in hardness. Besides being among the weakest of woods, sweet buckeye smells terrible when green and shrinks greatly in drying, losing 50 percent of its weight!

If those significant traits aren't bad enough, the fruits from which the tree derives its name (round and shiny brown, they resemble a deer's eye) have a poisonous reputation. Livestock and even children have developed nausea and dizziness from eating them.

On the other hand, even this lowliest of hardwoods has some historical merits. Bookbinders of old would mash the toxic buckeye fruits and make a paste to fasten pages together. The very poison intolerable to people and animals also drove insects away from their otherwise vulnerable books.

Then, too, sweet buckeye wood, although plain and weak, has proved useful even now for shipping crates and boxes because of its lightness. Nails also hold well in it. Surprisingly, this same lightness -- combined with straight-grain and resistance to splitting -- made it ideal for artificial limbs before man-made materials.

Despite buckeye's faults, George Washington, who loved trees, developed a fondness for it on a trip to West Virginia. He found a variety that in spring bore beautiful flowers, and went on to pay the sweet buckeye the highest tribute by gathering its seeds and planting them at Mount Vernon.