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The Horse Chestnut Tree and Conkers

Updated on October 20, 2017
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Linda Crampton is a science teacher with an honors degree in biology. She loves to study nature and write about animals and plants.

Conkers and a fruit capsule dropped by a horse chestnut tree
Conkers and a fruit capsule dropped by a horse chestnut tree | Source

The Beautiful Horse Chestnut Tree

The horse chestnut is a beautiful ornamental tree with attractive leaves and flowers. It produces prickly fruit capsules which each contain a glossy brown and nut-like seed. The seed is known as a conker and has been used in a popular children's game since at least the mid-nineteenth century. The game gets its name from the seed and is known as conkers.

The scientific name of the horse chestnut tree is Aesculus hippocastanum. Despite its common name, horse chestnut isn't closely related to true chestnut trees. It's native to Southeastern Europe but is grown in parks, landscaped areas and gardens around the world. The conkers ripen in September and October. They aren't edible and are actually toxic in their intact form. They're safe to touch, though. An extract made from horse chestnut seeds or leaves may have medicinal benefits.

There are horse chestnut trees growing in my neighbourhood in Canada. They are one of my favorite trees. The flowers are lovely to see in late spring and early summer and the conkers are fun to collect in autumn.

A horse chestnut tree in a park in Essex, England
A horse chestnut tree in a park in Essex, England | Source

Features of Horse Chestnut Trees

A horse chestnut tree may grow to over a hundred feet in height. A mature tree is densely leaved in summer and is an impressive sight.

The leaves develop from sticky buds and are said to be "palmately compound". This term means that a leaf consists of smaller leaflets that radiate from a common base. There are five to seven leaflets in a leaf. Each leaflet has toothed edges and a pointed tip.

Horse chestnut flowers are mainly white but have attractive pink or yellow blotches at their base. They are born in erect spikes that are sometimes called "candles" because they look as though they are lighting up the tree.

The fruits are large and prickly. They are green at first and turn yellow in the autumn. Each fruit generally contains one conker (or horse chestnut), but may occasionally contain two or even three conkers. In the autumn the fruits fall to the ground, often already open. The seeds, or conkers, are a beautiful, rich brown color and have a glossy appearance. There is a white mark at one end of each seed.

Horse chestnut trees are sometimes planted on either side of a road, forming beautiful avenues. They are valued for their beauty, the nectar that they provide for bees, and their conkers. As described below, they may have medicinal benefits as well. The wood of horse chestnut is soft, light and weak. It isn't very good for building things.

Horse chestnut leaves and bark
Horse chestnut leaves and bark | Source

How Did Horse Chestnut and Conkers Get Their Names?

There are several possible reasons why Aesculus hippocastanum is known as a "horse" chestnut. When a leaf drops, the scar left on the tree is shaped like a horseshoe. The scar also contains seven marks around the edge that look like the nails of a horseshoe. Another possible reason for the name is that it was once thought (mistakenly) that horse chestnuts helped cure horses of chest complaints and made their coats shiny.

The name "conker" may have come from the sound that's made as two conkers hit each other. Another possibility is that it was derived from the French word "cogner", which means to "hit or knock". In some regions of Britain conkers are given alternate names, including obblyonkers and cheggies. Conkers with flat sides are sometimes called cheesers.

Horse chestnut flowers
Horse chestnut flowers | Source

The Conkers Game

Conkers is a traditional game in the UK, where I grew up. The goal of the game is for a person to use his or her conker to break a conker belonging to another person.

The earliest games of conkers were actually performed with hazelnuts or sea shells instead of horse chestnuts. The horse chestnut tree wasn't imported into the United Kingdom until the 1600s. The first recorded game of conkers played with horse chestnut seeds took place in 1848 on the Isle of Wight.

To prepare for a game of conkers, a player has to drill a hole through one of the seeds. A screwdriver or another device is sometimes used instead of a drill. A piece of string or a shoelace is then threaded through the hole and a knot is tied at one end so that the string can't slip out of the hole.

To play the game, one person dangles their conker and the other swings or flicks their conker at the stationary one. The players take turns swinging their conkers. A conker that breaks another one is the winner.

Competitive conkers are assigned a number. A none-er is a conker that hasn't yet broken another one while a one-er has broken one conker. However, the numbering system gets more complicated than this. A conker not only gains a point for defeating another one but also take over the points of the conker that it destroyed. For example, if a none-er breaks a two-er, the none-er becomes a three-er. It got one point for winning the game plus it gained the two points of the conker that it broke.

A horizontal view of a horse chestnut flower spike; the spikes are arranged vertically on the tree and look like candles
A horizontal view of a horse chestnut flower spike; the spikes are arranged vertically on the tree and look like candles | Source

How to Play Conkers

The World Conker Championships

In the United Kingdom, even adults play conkers. The World Conker Championships are held on the second Sunday in October every year. The event takes place in Northamptonshire and is organized by the Ashton Conker Club.

The club provides conkers for the games and doesn't allow players to use their own. This rule prevents players from entering the games with an unfair advantage. There are several methods of hardening a conker, which aren't allowed in the competition. These methods include soaking the seed in vinegar or salt water and baking it in an oven. Storing a conker for a year will also harden it.

Green horse chestnut fruits
Green horse chestnut fruits | Source

Possible Medicinal Benefits of Horse Chestnut

An extract of horse chestnut seeds or leaves may have medicinal benefits. There is scientific evidence that the extract can help chronic venous insufficiency. In this condition, a weakness in the leg veins interferes with the return of blood from the legs to the heart. The condition causes problems such as varicose veins, ankle swelling and pain.

The NIH, or National Institutes of Health, acknowledges that horse chestnut extract has been shown to be effective for venous insufficiency. They also state that there is no evidence that it can help any other condition, however.

Any extract that's used must be free of aesculin. Aesculin (or esculin) is a toxic substance in horse chestnut. Horse chestnut also contains a substance called aescin (or escin), which is thought to produce the beneficial effects noted in experiments.

Horse chestnut extract may act as a medication, but eating conkers or leaves from a tree is dangerous. Extracts intended for medical use must be obtained from Aesculus hippocastanum and not from related plants such as Aesculus californica (California buckeye) or Aesculus glabra (Ohio buckeye). These plants haven't been tested for medicinal benefits or safety.

It's important that anyone who is considering the use of horse chestnut as a medication talks to their doctor. Natural medicines can cause side effects and can interfere with the action of pharmaceutical drugs.

Time Lapse of Horse Chestnut Trees in Different Seasons

The Leaf Miner Moth and Horse Chestnuts

The horse chestnut is a much loved tree in the United Kingdom. Unfortunately, in some parts of the country it's being attacked by the leaf miner moth, or Cameraria ohridella. The moth causes the leaves of horse chestnut to turn brown and fall off the tree in late summer instead of in the fall.

The damage is done by the larvae of the moth. They "mine" their way through the leaves as they feed on leaf tissue. Although infected trees don't look very attractive, they aren't killed by the moth. The damage to the leaves develops too late in the growing season to have much effect. The seeds or conkers may be smaller than normal, however.

There has been some concern that horse chestnut trees are being weakened by the moth's presence, which might make them more susceptible to microbe infections. Recent research has dispelled this notion, however.

Effects of The Leaf Miner Moth on Horse Chestnut

Bleeding Canker Disease and Horse Chestnut Trees

Scientists say that the threat of a bacterium that causes bleeding canker disease is much more serious than the threat created by the leaf miner moth. The dangerous bacterium is called Pseudomonas syringae. It creates an infection in the tree bark (a canker). The damaged area releases a sticky, reddish brown liquid. The infection may be minor. However, in severe cases the infection travels deeper into the tree trunk and kills the inner bark, the cambium (which produces new plant tissue) and the outer wood. Water and nutrient transport may be disrupted. If the infection spreads all around the tree trunk, the tree will die.

Hopefully researchers will be able to fight bleeding canker disease and prevent the infection from spreading to new trees. The loss of horse chestnut trees from Britain would be a very sad event. They have been a beautiful part of the landscape for many years.

References

Why we love conkers and horse chestnut trees from BBC earth

Ashton Conker Club

Horse chestnut information from the NIH

© 2013 Linda Crampton

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    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much for the comment and the vote, Alun. I think the horse chestnut is a lovely tree. It's fun to observe it and to write about it!

    • Greensleeves Hubs profile image

      Greensleeves Hubs 3 years ago from Essex, UK

      Lovely feature about all aspects of the life of horse chestnuts. The photos are all good and helpful (I never knew that in close up the horse chestnut flowers could be so attractive) including your own, opening picture. The videos all also contribute something different.

      The time lapse transformation is particularly attractive, and I love the comical conker playing video! (Personally I never liked conkers - too much risk of an errant, ill-directed conker causing a painful blow on the hand!)

      Excellent introduction to a distinctive and attractive tree. Voted up, Alun

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks, ologsinquito. I think that Hildegard of Bingen was a very interesting woman. I enjoy learning about her.

    • ologsinquito profile image

      ologsinquito 3 years ago from USA

      Great article. One of my favorite herbalists, Hildegard of Bingen, believed chestnuts could cure just about anything.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks for the interesting comment, LastRoseofSummer2. I hadn't thought about how often conkers were mentioned in period dramas until now!

    • LastRoseofSummer2 profile image

      LastRoseofSummer2 3 years ago from Arizona

      Thank you! I hear a lot about conkers because of all the period dramas I watch. Glad to know some more info on it all.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks for the visit and the vote, moonlake. It's always sad when a tree is cut down. I can understand that it may need to be done when the tree is diseased or is weak and a danger to the public, but otherwise it seems like such a shame.

    • moonlake profile image

      moonlake 3 years ago from America

      I love this tree but I think the only one we had in our town has been cut down. The city can be blamed for that they love cutting trees down. Voted up.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks for commenting and for sharing your story, Deb. It's sad when a favorite tree has to be cut down.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 4 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      When I was growing up, we had a horse chestnut in the yard, and I regularly played with the conkers, but I didn't know about the game that you played. Mostly I threw them to home in on my aim. The tree had bleeding canker, and my father eventually cut it down. Thoughts of it held many happy memories, as it was a fabulous shade tree.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Dianna. Yes, playing conkers is fun! Thank you for the visit and the comment.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 4 years ago

      We had these tress in Indiana and I failed to realize this game of conkers existed..as a child it would have been fun! Thanks for the education!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Nell. Thanks for the comment. I've heard about the idea that conkers repel spiders, but I haven't seen any proof one way or the other. It would be very interesting - and useful - if conkers contained a chemical that kept spiders away from an area!

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 4 years ago from England

      Hi Alicia, I used to love playing conkers! and its fascinating to read that the reason why they call it the horse chestnut is because of the shape left on the tree, well I never knew that! I know there is a new theory that if you place conkers around your house then it keeps spiders away, so maybe its that chemical that does it! I read that they have made a spray for spiders from it, great read! nell

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, drbj. Thank you very much for the visit and the comment - and for the humor!

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 4 years ago from south Florida

      Who knew about the horse chestnut tree and conkers and the conkers game, Alicia? Not me. So it was extremely educational and entertaining to read your fascinating treatise on same. Thank you for this exceptional exposition. Now I'm worrying about conkers who may be susceptible to cankers.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks, DDE. I appreciate your comment.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 4 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      The Horse Chestnut Tree and Conkers a beautifully presented hub on this topic, and I so enjoyed learning more about this tree.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks for the visit and the comment, Pamela. Nature is an interesting topic to explore!

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 4 years ago from United States

      All of this information about this tree is new to me and very interesting. I am always interested in reading about nature and you did an excellent job of presenting the information in a very interesting way. Also hub.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much, CraftytotheCore! I appreciate your kind comment.

    • CraftytotheCore profile image

      CraftytotheCore 4 years ago

      I love to learn about trees. Such fascinating information about one type of tree! Thank you for sharing such wisdom and knowledge.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you for the comment, Eddy. I appreciate the vote and the share, too.

    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 4 years ago from Wales

      A wonderful read thus voted up plus shared.

      Eddy.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Bill. It's interesting to hear about other places where conkers is played. As always, thank you very much for the comment, the vote and the shares!

    • bdegiulio profile image

      Bill De Giulio 4 years ago from Massachusetts

      Hi Linda. Very interesting. I believe that we have Horse Chestnut Trees here in western Massachusetts. I seem to recall collecting the Conkers up near Amherst College many years ago. I also remember playing the game with the Conkers as a kid. Boy, that's a long time ago. A very interesting hub, great job. Voted up, shared, pinned, etc.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you for the lovely comment, Faith. I appreciate your votes, the share and all your support very much. Blessings to you, too.

    • Faith Reaper profile image

      Faith Reaper 4 years ago from southern USA

      Thank you for this astounding hub here on the horse chestnut trees, for I have never heard of such and learned much from your most interesting and insightful hub here. It certainly is a stunningly beautiful tree. I loved the time-lapsed video of 8 seasons of this gorgeous tree. Thank you for the education here.

      Excellent as always. Up and more and sharing.

      Blessings to you,

      Faith Reaper

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks, Mel. I don't think Canadians play conkers, either. It seems to be a British tradition. It's a simple activity, but it's fun. (I've had some strange experiences with the automatic spell check on my iPad, too!)

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks, Bill. I love horse chestnut trees, too!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks for the visit and the comment, Martin.

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 4 years ago from San Diego California

      Fascinating story on the game of conkers, which was unknown to me until now. As far as I know us Yanks don't play it, although it sounds like fun. My iPhone doesn't know about it either, because it changed the word conkers into "con jets," which doesn't make any sense. Another drawback of these darn smart phones. Great hub!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Wow! I love the trees but knew next to nothing about them. Great information and quite interesting, Alicia. Thank you!

    • Mhatter99 profile image

      Martin Kloess 4 years ago from San Francisco

      Thank you for this.