Horse Chestnut and Conkers

Horse Chestnut trees have played a role in my life since I was born.  My parents’ garden includes a small wood, predominantly horse chestnut, or conker, trees.  They were my shelter, my climbing frame, my friends, my play area.  They were shade on a hot day.  They were an escape from the rain.  But it was not without it’s faults.  Have you ever run barefoot through a wood where the floor is carpeted with conker shells in varying stages of life and death?  It prickles.  A lot.

The horse chestnut tree is considered a luxury, or at least it was for our ancestors, because they don’t provide food.  They are grown mainly for the shade they provide and the wood they produce.  Conkers are poisonous to a lot of animals so these weren’t really useful trees.  You’d be far better planting an oak who’s fruits you could grind into a flour.  Because of this, the horse chestnut is a symbol of wealth and exuberance.  If you could give up land to a tree with less practical uses then you were clearly someone of high status.

In terms of reflecting on the tree’s message, perhaps it is a call to look at our own wealth?  Or, is the tree reminding us that not everything needs to be useful.  We should leave space in our busy, productivity focused lives, to stare at the stars, to watch the rain, to just be.  To do things purely for the sake of enjoyment.  Play, have fun.  Not everything needs to be practical.

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.

No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.

No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.

No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.

No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.

A poor life this is if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

By William Henry Davies

One advantage of the horse chestnut has over some trees is its rapid growth.  The trees that made up my wood had been planted by my dad when he was a little boy.  Even when I was very young, these trees which would have been 20-30 years old were substantial.

Their common name may come from the scars left on the twigs after the leaves have fallen.  I had never considered it before, just accepted it as children do, that that was what trees looked like when they shed their leaves.  But it’s true, they leave behind a distinctive horseshoe shape, complete with “nails”.  Think about that a bit more. Every time the tree lets go of a leaf, releases a part of itself which is no longer needed, it leaves a scar.  We are all made up of things we have experienced, even those things which we have said goodbye to.  The older the tree, the more scars it will have.  As we age, we too carry with us the marks of our past.  Is the tree any less beautiful because it is older?  No, and nor are we.  The passing of time wears very differently on a human body than a tree but that wrinkle or that grey hair, they are all marks of a live, signs of wisdom and experience.

This is a tree which changes considerably as the year passes, let it guide you through the passing seasons of the year, and the seasons of your life.  Spring starts with sticky buds.  Tightly packaged buds are protected from frost damage and insects by a sticky, nasty layer.  As spring progresses, the buds come out of their cocoon and the tree develops beautiful candle like flowers.  These light the way for us as we say goodbye to the darkness of the winter.  They are a hint of the radiant sun which is building in strength.  For the most part these flowers are white with a fleck of pink, but we had two trees which produced vibrant pink candles with a fleck of yellow.

Conkers are probably the most well known part of the horse chestnut tree.  Even if you can’t identify the tree, you can probably recognise it’s fruits. And they are prolific.  As summer draws to a close, the twigs become laden with prickly green balls.  As autumn sets in, these start to open, revealing a beautiful, pure white flesh cushioning a shiny brown seed.  These glossy conkers are so different from their spikey green shell that it is hard to believe they are from the same tree.  They remind me of the hedgehog, defensive spines as protection to keep people at a distance.  When the horse chestnut tree is ready, the green capsules will start to crack open, letting people slowly see their vulnerable inside.  If you do not do this on the tree’s time scale, you will be disappointed, it will not share itself with you.

Conkers are poisonous to most animals (but not deer apparently).  Despite their uselessness as food, conkers are beloved by many, primarily for the game of the same name.  Possibly less well known is the attempt to use them as a source of starch during the first and second world wars.  The starch was used to produce acetone which in turn was used in the production of cordite, an explosive.  Conkers, it turned out, were a poor source of starch but it was probably better than using sources which could be eaten.

Some people claim that a conker in each room will keep away spiders but there is little evidence to support this.  Despite that, well known shops continue to sell conker based sprays.  A more reliable use for the horse chestnut comes from a time before fridges.  Back in the day, in Germany, to protect their cellars (and hence their alcohol) from the heat of the summer, brewers would plant the trees.  The dense shade kept them cool whilst their shallow roots didn’t intrude on the cellars.  It is possibly this practice which created the beer garden.

Other uses of the horse chestnut tree include their timber, which isn’t very strong, being used in carving.  As we’ve seen already in this post, the tree is about beauty, not utility.  There is a time and a place for both, but here we are being asked to focus on the art of the world.

A final, sad note, about the horse chestnut.  Anne Frank mentioned a particular one in her diary which was located in the centre of Amsterdam.  In August 2010 a heavy wind blew it over.  This tree which had seen so much and stood strong for so long had reached the end of it’s life.  It’s first life anyway.  Eleven young trees, from seeds of this one specimen, were transported to America.  Here they were rehomed.  One now stands in the 9/11 Memorial Park, two in Holocaust Centers, one oustide the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, and the rest in other museums and monuments across the country.

None of the above should be considered medical advice, do not eat anything unless you’ve done your research.  Plants go by different names in different places and have different properties at different times of year.  Some of the possible uses of this plant have come from folklore and should not be taken as fact.