Horse Chestnut

(Aesculus hippocastanum) 'Horse' in a plant name usually denotes largeness and coarseness, and that is probably the case here, though the older writers obviously did not think so. Note, for example, the old name Castanea equina. Parkinson says "The horse chestnits are given in the East country, and so through all Turkie, unto horses to cure them of the cough, shortnesse of winde, and such other diseases". Gerard also accounts for the name in the same way. Skinner suggests the derivation from the likeness to a horse's hoof in the leaf cicatrix, and it may have been from the doctrine of signatures that the nuts, crushed as meal, were given to horses for various diseases. Actually, horses do not seem to like them, though deer and cattle do (Barber & Phillips), and the nuts are a good food for sheep (Lindley). But they are definitely not for human consumption; there have been cases of poisoning due to children eating the green outer cases of the nuts, and there have even been reports of fatalities in America. But the nuts are not pleasant to the taste, so children do not usually eat enough of them to produce toxic symptoms (Kingsbury. 1967).

There are cases of horse chestnuts being taken as the May Bush (see MAY GARLAND). In Carrick-on-Suir, in Ireland, it was branches of this tree that were set up on the morning of the first of May, and hung over doors of the byres, where the cattle were kept (Bealoideas. Vol 15; 1945p 283-4).

There has been some weather lore recorded in Wales -if the leaves spread like a fan, then, so it was believed, warm weather would come; but long before rain, the leaves begin to droop and point downward (Trevelyan). The other instance of country belief involving carrying a nut around in the pocket, is recorded not only in Britain but also in America. For instance, people in Kansas used to carry it (and Yellow Buckeye) for rheumatism, either to prevent or to cure it. In New Hampshire, it was said that after a few years, the chestnut would become hard and dark from "absorbing the rheumatic germs" (Meade). Some said the chestnut had to be either begged or stolen (Sackett & Koch). Norfolk people believed in chestnuts, made into a necklace, as a charm to ward off rheumatism. They had to be gathered by children who had never suffered from the ailment (Porter. 1974). Some kind of horse chestnut decoction was drunk in Essex for lumbago, spoken of there as rheumatism (Newman & Wilson). Elsewhere, including Spain (H W Howes), it is piles that is reckoned to be cured or prevented by carrying them around (W B Johnson; Tongue; Fogel), and that is interesting, because it is known that extracts of horse chestnut are rich in Vitamin K, and so is useful in treating circulatory disorders like piles, varicose veins and chilblains (Conway). A fluid extract made from the nuts is also used to protect the skin from the harmful effects of the sun (Schauenberg & Paris).

Another usage of conkers was as a snuff to cure catarrh and headache. The Pennsylvania Germans used it that way (Fogel), but this was quite an early habit (see Thornton), and the idea was to grate them up and use the powder to make one sneeze. Apparently it was recommended not only as a powder but also as an infusion or decoction to take up the nostrils. The leaves and flowers have occasionally been used, too (and so has the bark). The leaves are narcotic; an infusion of them has been used for insomnia (Conway), and a tincture of the flowers is sometimes given for rheumatism (Perry. 1972). The bark has been used for fevers, and externally, for ulcers (Wickham).

The nuts are Conkers, or Conquerors, sometimes shortened to Conks, and in parts of England lengthened to Oblionkers, or Hoblionkers (Salisbury). The reference, of course, is to the children's game with the nut on a string, to be struck by the opponent's similarly strung conker in an effort to establish a conquering, or champion, nut. So popular has it been that there is actually an organised conker competition, at Barnstaple, held on 20 October (M Baker. 1980). But since 1965, a World Conker Championship has been held at Ashton, Northamptonshire, on the second Sunday in October (Mabey. 1998). A variation on the game was described by George Bourne. It was called Mounters, and consisted in whirling a conker on its string round and round, and then letting it go mounting up into the sky. Not much of a game, perhaps, but he said the tree was actually called Mounter-tree, at about the time of year the game took place (Bourne. 1927). The petioles are known as Knuckle-bleeders in Norfolk, evidence of another boys' game (Britten & Holland).

The flowers are Candles in the west country, or Christmas Candles (Macmillan) (the tree itself is a Christmas Tree). The name one would expect to find, but do not, is Fairy Candles, for the story is that it was the horse chestnut that kept its candles burning to light the fairies home after their dance (Barber & Phillips).

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