Monday, May 22, 2023

Horse Chestnut

Receiving phone calls or emails from readers with questions or suggestions for topics to write about is one of my favorite aspects of writing. It encourages me to learn new things, and as my grandfather used to say to me “no day is complete unless you have learned something new.” Recently I heard from Don W. in Fillmore, MO. He wanted to know if I was familiar with the Horse-chestnut tree. I told him I was not, and after visiting with him I knew I needed to learn more about this tree. I was able to photograph the tree on his sons property and came to the conclusion it is a beautiful landscape tree.

Horse-chestnuts, also called the Conker tree or buckeye are native to the Balkans, including Greece, Yugoslavia, Turkey, Bulgaria, and Albania. Because of their beauty they quickly became popular worldwide and can now be found in all reaches of the globe. Typically, they grace parks, and tree-lined avenues, or botanical gardens. They are rarely found in the forests within their homeland. These are large trees that may reach heights up to 130 feet and produce beautiful panicles of white flowers tipped in yellow or pink that bloom in May. These panicles may be four to twelve inches tall and contain up to fifty flowers. From the panicle fruit develops, in the form of a fleshy, bumpy husk, with a warty appearance. 


"When the leaves fall in autumn, a perfect horseshoe shape, complete with seven "nail holes" is visible at the end of each stem."

Within each capsule a nut-like seed develops called a Conker. The common name of horse chestnut comes from the observation that these nuts may cure coughs or panting in horses. Which I find ironic for reasons I will mention later. It is also believed the name comes from their similarity in appearance to the sweet chestnut trees, like the American chestnut, Japanese chestnut, Chinese chestnut, and European chestnut. The Horse chestnut shares the same family of trees as the soapberry and maple trees. Whereas the sweet chestnuts are in the same family of trees as oaks and beech.

These trees are related to the buckeye tree, that we are all familiar with, which produces the attractive nut, said to bring good luck to anyone who carries one on their person. (I remember as a young girl being so excited when a fellow student would bring a handful of buckeyes into school to share. I still love finding or receiving buckeyes.) The nut of the horse chestnut is said to resemble the eyes of a deer; thus, the name buckeye became a colloquial name to describe the tree. 

The infamous American chestnut tree, native to the United States is now considered functionally extinct, meaning that while there are some estimated 430 million stems growing in forests throughout the Eastern United States, none of these stems are growing into the adult tree as they should. They are all less than one inch in diameter. Because they cannot reproduce or produce seeds, they are not contributing to the forest ecosystem in beneficial ways. The American chestnut is highly susceptible to chestnut blight, which creates a canker around the tree effectively girdling and strangling the tree. Older, larger trees will succumb to the blight in two to five years, whereas young, immature trees may die in a single season. Scientist are working on a biologically engineered variety of the American chestnut that is resistant to the blight. The end goal is to repopulate our forests with this iconic tree. American chestnut trees traditionally were prized for their timber and for the benefits to wildlife in the form of a food source in the consumption of the nuts. Even humans enjoy eating chestnuts, after all who hasn’t heard the popular Christmas song “Chestnuts roasting on an Open Fire?” They are not called sweet chestnuts for nothing. These tasty nuts are often baked or roasted after a curing period that turns the starches in the nut to sugars. Chestnuts are higher in vitamin C than most other nuts, lower in fat and contain more starch than a potato, which earned them the nick-name Potato Tree. Horse chestnuts on the other hand are considered toxic and non-edible. So how do we tell the difference between a sweet chestnut and the poisonous horse chestnut? The sweet varieties have a sharp spiny bur covering the nuts, and each nut will have a tassel or point at one end of the nut. Horse chestnuts lack this tassel or point, instead they are flattened in shape.


Horse chestnut seeds are reported to cause tremors and lack of coordination in horses. Remember I said I would explain how ironic it was that people fed the seeds to horses to cure coughing and panting. This might be a case of “the cure being worse than the cause.” The FDA has classified this tree as unsafe for consumption. We may not be able to eat these nuts, but we can benefit from them in other ways.

A suitable, inexpensive laundry soap can be made for those of us looking for less chemically ladened products. Simply peel, then grate or chop conkers and soak in warm water for a couple of hours. For a bar of soap put the conkers in a cheese cloth or piece of muslin then squeeze out the excess moisture before pressing into a mold. Use the soaking water as a laundry liquid. For liquid soap blend around 20 soaked conkers in 6 liters of water. If you wanted you could add some essential oils.The resulting laundry or bath soap is reported to be gentle on your skin and even better its free!

Or perhaps, you could play a game of “conkers” named after the seed. This game is played by drilling a hole in one end of your nut (conker) and threading a string through it. Tie a knot and take turns swinging and striking the conker of your opponent. The first person whose conker breaks loses. This game was first recorded on the Isle of Wright in 1821 and grew in popularity throughout Europe and Ireland. By the 1940’s it was played on the street of New York and quickly became popular throughout the Eastern United States where it is still played in some areas today. The name conker translates to “knock-out” which would explain other variations of the game. Each player stands on one side of a wall and chucks conkers at his opponent trying to make bodily contact. This slightly more aggressive form of the game may have come from the word onomatopoeia. This long, complicated word, comes from the two Greek words onoma, meaning "name" and poiein “to make". So, in a literal sense, onomatopoeia means "to make a sound. Such as the sound of the conker seed striking something hard, like a skull! 

  If you don't mind being called a cheater, try aging your conker into something called a laggis. Conkers are left for a year to harden, and the result is the laggis, This almost always guarantees you will have the advantage needed to usurp your opponent. Want to speed up the hardening process? Soak or boil your conker in vinegar or try baking it in the oven. 


Some people claim the saponins within the seeds, can repel spiders. There does not seem to be any scientific proof this works, but saponins are toxic enough to most likely repel insects in areas where seeds fall and these toxins have permeated the ground. Just not sure how effective it would be to keep spiders at bay.

During WWI conker seeds were collected by many people , including children, and turned over to our government. These seeds were valued for their starch content which through a fermenting process could be used to produce acetone, which was then used to create cordate, that was used in the manufacturing of armaments. The conker seed was selected by the US government as a viable starch source. This choice was made to avoid starvation in an already struggling population, which they felt would happen if they used already low supplies of high starch food sources, such as potatoes. However, this particular nut proved to be a poor alternative to other starch rich foods and was abandoned after three months.That did not stop people from reprising this idea during WWII, when once again seeds were collected, and fermented, and cordite was created, and the whole thing was abandoned in short order. Some lessons are never learned, or perhaps these enterprising individuals thought they could succeed where their predecessors did not.

Fan of beer? Before the time of refrigeration, creative individuals in Bulgaria planted the horse chestnut tree near the cellars used for lagering beer. The trees shaded the cellars, and because of their shallow root system they did not damage the caverns within. Because beer was often served near the cellars, the term beer garden was coined and still used today. Although you probably will be enjoying said garden at the top of a high rise patio rather than an outdoor cellar. 

In Amsterdam a horse chestnut, which grew in the center of town was referred to as the Anne Frank tree. In her diaries she mentioned the tree which gave it historical value to the area. In 2010 the tree was blown down in storms, but from the loss came eleven saplings that made their way to the United States. After a lengthy quarantine period, those saplings were later planted in historically significant places, including the 9/11 memorial park and two holocaust centers, which is very fitting for these historically important trees.


Horse chestnuts may not have the culinary value of sweet chestnuts, but they certainly have a rich history and value all their own. They are beautiful landscape trees, and if you are feeling particularly adventuresome you could try your hand at a game of conkers. 


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