Horse Chestnut Tree – (Aesculus hippocastanum)
Hands up if you remember playing “conkers” when you were younger! I know you can’t see it, but I’m frantically waving mine in the air at the moment! Do today’s kids even bother with this great game anymore? I certainly hope so! I have fab memories of playing conkers which, by the way, I was rubbish at (picture bruised knuckles here). But it didn’t stop me getting all excited when I saw the horse chestnuts coming through on the trees, ripe for foraging!
If my memory serves me well, I remember the local kids used to find big sticks and knock the conkers off way before they were ready for picking. Such was the anticipation for that year’s conker competitions they couldn’t wait to get started. I also have vague memories of my brothers, Paul and Mark, polishing theirs with boot polish. Of course, this strengthened said conkers, giving them a winning edge!
Crazy Conker Competitions!
Speaking of conker competitions, are you aware that there’s a World Conker Championship event? Not only that, but it also takes place each year in the UK, in Northamptonshire on the 2nd Sunday of October! So, if you’re getting cosy, nostalgic feelings from this post, then you’ve still got plenty of time to book yourself a weekend trip to the Schuckburgh Arms, where it takes place in the beautiful village of Southwick! It may not be your idea of a romantic weekend. However, I’m betting that you’ll go home with a smile on your face after this walk down memory lane.
Now that I think about it, a conker competition is a great event for local pubs to host each year, and certainly a unique way for them to get more customers through the door for sure! I for one would pop along to my local for the event, and I’m quite sure I wouldn’t have to drag Mr B there kicking and screaming! Oops, as usual, I’m going on a bit, so time to concentrate on the task at hand and let you know more about the rather exciting Horse Chestnut. But before I do that, take a look at the ‘Rules of the Game’ according to the World Conker Championship:
Conkers – The Official Game Rules
- Each player must use a new conker at the start of each game (ideally, a new lace as well). Players cannot re-use conkers from earlier games.
- The game begins with the toss of a coin. The winner of the toss chooses to strike or receive.
- A distance of no less than eight inches or 20cm of lace must be between a player’s knuckle and their conker.
- Each player takes three strikes at the opponent’s conker before play switched to their opponent. The opponent then takes three strikes and turns alternate in this way until the end of the game.
- Each strike must be clearly aimed at the nut. There can be no deliberate mis-hits.
- The game is decided once one of the conkers is smashed.
- If a conker is not completely smashed but so little of it remains that it cannot possibly mount a serious attack against its opponent, that conker is out.
- If both nuts smash at the same time, the match must be replayed.
- Any nut that is knocked from the lace but not smashed may be re-threaded and the game may be continued.
- Any player causing a knotting of the laces (a snag) will be noted. Three snags will lead to disqualification.
- If a game lasts for more than five minutes then play is halted. Each player is allowed nine further strikes at their opponent’s nut, again alternating after every three strikes. If neither conker has been smashed at the end of the nine strikes, then the player who strikes the nut the most times during this period is judged the winner.
15 Horse Chestnut Facts
- Mature horse chestnut trees grow to heights of up to 40 meters.
- They prefer moist, shady areas.
- They live for up to 300 years.
- Their bark starts life smooth and grey/brown, however as it ages the bark darkens and becomes scaly. Much like we do as we get older!
- When the buds raise their heads in early spring, they have an oval, conical appearance and are red, shiny and sticky.
- Their beautiful flowers begin to appear around May, with individual flowers displaying 4-5 petals, which are white/pink in colour.
- These flowers are used in some medicinal preparations, as are the fresh shoot tips.
- Flowers display from May through to June.
- It’s hard to confuse their leaves with any other tree. I think they look like an outstretched palm. They have 5-7 serrated leaflets, which spread from the central stem and reach up to 20 cm in length.
- Our lovely insects pollinate the above flowers, and before long they start to transform into spiky green husks.
- The husks house one or two seeds (conkers).
- The above husks begin to burst open and fall in the autumn.
- There was a campaign during the first world war for families to collect horse-chestnuts and donate them to the government.
- These conkers were then used as a source of starch in a fermentation process to produce acetone. Later, this was made into a solvent for the production of cordite in military armaments. (REF)
- The leaf stalks leave a scar on the twig when they fall, which resembles a horseshoe.
Way back in the aeons of time, before the ice age, the Horse Chestnut was indigenous to Central Europe. However, following this “cold spell”, it ended up elsewhere throughout the world. Not returning to Central Europe until after the Dutch naturalist, physician and botanist Carolus Clusius (1526-1609) received a young horse chestnut plant in 1581.
The tree was a gift from the Constantinople ambassador, who received it as a farewell present from the Sultan. Carolus subsequently planted the young sapling in Hapsburg Gardens in Vienna. However, by the mid-nineteenth century, the Horse Chestnut tree became fully re-established in Central Europe following a widespread introduction of the tree to Britain.
Incidentally, Carolus Clusius, recognising the 16th century Botanical Renaissance as a scholastic opportunity, decided to move to France to study it. Which he did in the context of medicine, at the now famous University of Montpellier (1551–1554). Following his period of study, Carolus completed a set of botanical illustrations. These drawings and watercolours contributed, alongside others, to an exciting chapter in sixteenth-century natural history. And that was the publication of The Complete Botanical Watercolours of the 16th-century, Libri picturati. Which, by the way, is an excellent publication and a good investment. It’s also worth noting that the Botanical Renaissance introduced significant changes to the European knowledge of living nature well before the age of Darwin.
Folklore is a bit thin on the ground for the old horse chestnut tree. However, it’s there if you look hard enough, and I’m sure you’ll probably be familiar with one or two of the old customs. Such as, in the 18th/19th century it was common to carry conkers in your jacket or trouser pockets. Apparently, it offered some relief against arthritis. I’m not sure quite how that would work, however that said, the placebo effect can be quite powerful!
I’m sure it will come as no surprise that the best-known piece of folklore about conkers, and one that persists to this very day, is that placing conkers around your house will repel spiders. Now, I know plenty of people that have tried this and swear by the results. However, I’ve tried this myself, and I can’t say I found it particularly useful!
Despite the strategically placed conkers in my bedroom, I ended up being bitten by a small wolf spider that was hiding in my trouser leg! Not only that, but my leg became infected, and I needed to go on antibiotics! The bite itself just felt like a wee scratch. Imagine my surprise when said spider casually sauntered out the leg of my jeans, drunk on my blood! So no, this is one folklore believe that I would not recommend. However, if it works for you, then let me know in the comments section. I’d love to hear you’re spider stories.
The Horse Chestnut – A Money Making Tree??
Are you ready for this next piece of folklore? You’re not going to believe it… but I’ve read that if you carry three shiny conkers in your pocket, you’ll always have money!! I’m not sure how that one works, to be honest. Add it to the piece of folklore on arthritis, and you’ll not only have some cash, but you’ll also be walking with a spring in your step. And it’s no wonder, with all that spare cash to spend. That said, I’m always willing to give these folklores a bit of a go, and for you, I’ll certainly try this one. But when you don’t hear from me again, it’s because I’m a millionaire and living the high life on a desert island somewhere, consuming cocktails and taking it easy! 🙂
Famous Horse Chestnut Trees
Moving on, let’s take a look at famous horse chestnut trees. The most famous by far is the Anne Frank Tree. Until 2011, this large Horse Chestnut tree stood in the centre of Amsterdam, but unfortunately, it was blown down in heavy winds. Which is quite a blow to history, as this is the tree that Anne Frank wrote about in “The Diary of a Young Girl”.
Horse chestnut leaf can treat the following conditions:
- Menstrual pain
- Swollen soft tissue
- Joint pain
Use branch bark for:
The seed and leaf address the following complaints:
- Varicose Veins
- Phlebitis (swollen veins)
Use seeds (conkers) in the treatment of:
- Enlarged prostate
- Water retention
Special Precautions & Warnings:
Do not eat ANY of the raw parts of this tree. Also, avoid it if you have any of the following conditions:
- Blood disorders
- Digestion problems
- Liver disease
- Kidney disease
- Or if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding
Horse Chestnut Recipes
Horse chestnuts may not be edible, however, the good news is that their extract is a common ingredient in a variety of skincare products. Possessing anti-ageing properties which minimise the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. Not only that, but their extract also aids the treatment of eczema, rosacea and skin infections.
If that isn’t enough for you, how does the fact that horse chestnut is great for boosting the blood circulation in the scalp, and therefore the production of new cells grab you? The extract contains fatty acids, proteins and short-chain sugars which repair your hair if it’s been damaged. And, because the seed contains a high level of saponins, which act as a natural foamer, there will be no build up left behind on your scalp.
As far as I am concerned this is great news because it’s super easy to make a natural shampoo or body/face wash that can treat all of the above. Not to mention, along with being a natural product, it’s also very inexpensive. In fact, why don’t you make yourself a batch of the tincture recipe below and add a few drops to your skincare lotions or creams?
- 5 whole horse chestnuts
- 700 ml of water
- 5 drops essential oil of choice optional
- Cut horse chestnut into small pieces and place in a medium-sized saucepan.
- Add 450 ml of the water and bring to a boil.
- Reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes.
- Add rest of the water and simmer for 10 more minutes.
- Remove from heat and leave to cool.
- Strain the mixture through a muslin cloth into a glass jar, squeezing the muslin until it suds. Rinse muslin, and its contents with cold water, and squeeze into the jar again.
- Store glass jar in the fridge until use.
- To use: Massage a small amount into wet hair and let sit for 5 minutes. Rinse well. Can also be used as a soothing wash for skin, especially in those with eczema and psoriasis.
Horse Chestnut Gel
Horse Chestnut Varicose Vein Gel
- Sterilised jar with a secure lid
- 250 ml sterilised bottle
Step One Ingredients
- 10 fresh conkers
- 250 ml vodka
Step Two Ingredients
- 3 sachets vegetable glycerin
- 150 ml water
- 150 ml horse chestnut tincture
- 250 ml sterilised bottle
- Blend the conkers and vodka in a liquidiser until smooth.
- Place in a sterilised bottle and keep in a cool dark place for 10 days to 1 month, shaking every day or so. Strain before next step.
- Keeps for up to one year
- Add the vegetable gelatine to 150 ml cold water in a pan and whisk until dissolved. Heat for about 2 minutes, whisking constantly. As the mix starts to thicken, slowly pour in the Horse Chestnut Tincture a little at a time. Add the rose oil.
- Pour into a 250 ml sterilised bottle. Keeps for up to 3 months in the fridge. Rub on the affected area daily, preferably in the evening.
Phew…this weeks post has plenty to say, doesn’t it? So, before you get bored, and in true Looney Tunes style “that’s all folks”! Don’t forget to keep your eye on those horse chestnut trees over the next couple of weeks. And, in the meantime, take care, stay safe and happy foraging! If you don’t want to miss any of my posts, then don’t forget to subscribe!