Picking up the gleaming treasure under horse chestnut trees (Aesculus hippocastanum) is irresistible at this time of year. You’re never too old for your inner child to spring into squirrely action and pocket a few.
Residents of Britain might think of the horse chestnut as a native tree, but it’s really a naturalised immigrant, originating in the Balkans and imported from mainland Europe around 1550-1570. Imagine Shakespeare seeing it as the latest faddy garden ornamental! When we lived in London, my husband and I used to tandem down the Chestnut Avenue in Bushy Park under its broad canopy of horse chestnut trees. In full flower, they are a spectacular sight, and the park has a festival each May to celebrate the showy white candle-like blossoms.
The trees there might not be looking quite so magnificent these days as some have fallen prey to several forms of destructive blight. It’s estimated that 10 per cent of British trees are now affected, those in London suffering more than most. There were no conkers at all at Kew Gardens in 2006. Unthinkable! More about the various pests and pathogens attacking horse chestnuts over here.
If you’re lucky enough to find any conkers, what can you do with them? First, do nothing but admire the shoe-shine perfection of the russety globes, fresh from their acid-green spiked casing. Next, according to Roald Dahl, utter the greeting “Oddly, oddly, my first conker” thereby seeing off any misfortune heading your way in the coming season. It’s worth a try.
Insect/spider deterrents. There’s been a lot of talk about this. Giles Deacon, fashion designer and insect enthusiast, reportedly recommends conkers as a natural moth deterrent (Daily Telegraph, 18 April 2012). Their brown skins contain a compound called triterpenoid saponin which wards off these pests. Worth trying.
The idea is to scatter them liberally in corners, and tuck them in with your woollies etc. You could drill holes and hang them on strings or wire if you want a more decorative approach. But I wouldn’t bother. Especially as their plump sheen is so short-lived and the shrivelled version is best kept out of sight. Do they also work as a spider deterrent? I’m not sure, but what’s to be lost by trying?
Horse food? That old chestnut! No, don’t try this at home. When eaten by horses, horse chestnuts produce tremors and lack of coordination. Though deer, cattle, sheep and squirrels are not affected by the toxins – that saponin again – which would destroy our red blood cells if we consumed them. The nuts are, though, harmless to handle.
Grinding up horse chestnuts and and boiling them in water appears to make them just about edible for horses, but hardly seems worth the effort. The name may originate from the nuts being used to create a medicine for equine respiratory disorders.
Pile cure. The mind boggles, but apparently horse chestnuts have astringent and anti-inflammatory properties. They contain a glycoside – esculoside – which has been shown to shrink distended veins. It need to be pulverised and processed into some kind of cream first, and then applied topically. Commercial forms of this cream are available.
Fabric soap/bleach/whitener. The saponin in horse chestnuts also performs as a whitener, traditionally used to bleach flax, hemp, silk and wool in places such as France and Switzerland. Scientifically speaking, it’s the aesculin or esculinic acid – a glucoside – in the inner bark of the horse chestnut which has ultra violet fluorescence, acting as an optical whitener. More about that over here. If you want to try this at home, you need approximately 20 horse chestnuts per 6 litres of soft water. The method sounds a little complicated. And before you rush off to discover it, the brightening qualities of horse chestnut extract may wash out and are sensitive to light, so proceed with caution.
Conkers. If the tree isn’t native to Britain, the game played with the fruiting body certainly appears to be. It was first recorded on the Isle of Wight in 1848, but was described by the poet Robert Southey in the 1820s as played with other types of nut. The World Conker Championships were established near Oundle, Northants in 1965 and take place on the 2nd Sunday of each October. I could add a lot more but the game boils down pretty well to: a) drill hole in conker; b) thread onto string and knot well; c) find opponent with same; and d) get walloping.
Doll furniture. This idea of making little tables and chairs from conkers appeared in the 1965 (obviously a good year for conkers!) Puffin book Something to Do. All you need is a few pins to make legs plus back and arm supports, and some scraps of wool. Think The Borrowers meets Mid-century styling. I’ve had this book since childhood and remember having a go at these, probably over a long, wet weekend. As far as I can recall, the furniture had all shrivelled and the pins rusted by the end of Sunday. A little disappointing, but fun while it lasted.
Finally, a couple of noteworthy horse chestnut trees for you. Here is officially Britain’s biggest horse chestnut tree, down in Hampshire; we’re talking girth, not height, with this giant measuring in at a over 7 metres around its bole. And Anne Frank described her inspirational view of a horse chestnut tree in her diary entry for 23rd February 1944 (see below). The beleaguered tree sadly blew down in August 2010, but 11 offspring saplings survived it. They are all destined for meaningful sites of remembrance: one is destined to be planted at the site of 9/11.
I will think of Anne Frank the next time I pick up a conker, and feel profoundly fortunate.
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PS The title of this post alludes to She Stoops to Conquer, a play by Oliver Goldsmith. First performed in 1773, it’s a prototypical RomCom. Here’s a little film about Mark Thompson’s 18th century costumes for Jamie Lloyd’s 2012 National Theatre production. If you like corsets, not to mention pleated ribbon embellishments, you’ll be very happy. Enjoy your weekend, and remember that love conkers all…