California Conkers Posted on February 23, 2016

Buckeye comes indoors, chez Molly Chappellet

Days are warm and nights cold in February in the Napa valley. Wine-growers prefer cold, fearing budbreak too early and tender new shoots in the frosts of March and April. Hence the surprising sight of vineyards unpruned, still with their tangled tophamper, when much of Europe gets started with the new year.

After four years of drought the valley is celebrating a week of heavy rain. Brilliant green grass is a rare sight here; all summer the fields are buff or brown, but now the hills are emerald under the ghost-grey oaks festooned with Spanish moss. The vineyard cover-crop of mustard is celebratory yellow, the almond trees in every yard pale pink (two colours to keep apart if you can). Explosions of mimosa are over; magnolias are well away, and in the hillside grass blue borage, the first orange poppies, blue lupins and the tiny magenta Dodecatheons or shooting stars, primulaceous plants with swept-back petals rather like cyclamen.

But my favourites are the buckeyes, Aesculus californica. They form the lower layer of the forest, under oak, redwood and fir, with the gleaming madrones, the western version of our strawberry trees. Buckeyes break into leaf before almost any tree, salad-green in the bare undergrowth. Cold doesn’t seem to bother them. In early summer their long candles are as elaborately detailed as orchids. By late summer their leaves yellow and fall, leaving their grey tracery, wider than high, dripping with shining teardrop-shaped conkers.

For several years I collected them on Napa hillsides at vintage time and took them home. I planted them but they never germinated. Then one year I scooped some up on the way to the airport. They were in pots the same day and came up as eagerly as horse chestnuts. In fifteen years we were on the third generation.

There is one tree here I would love to plant at home; the luscious pale green and very faintly blushing Cinnamomum camphora that spreads its long branches over many Japanese shrines. It catches your eye in any group of trees, looking edibly tender – which in England, sadly, it is.

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