835 Aesculus hippocastanumCommon Names: common horsechestnut Family: Hippocastanaceae (horse chestnut Family)
The horsechestnut is a large tree with large leaves and a broadly conical crown. It gets up to 80 ft (24.4 m) tall with a spread almost as wide as its height. The deciduous leaves are palmately compound, with five or seven leaflets, each about 4-10 in (10.6-25.4 cm) long. Horsechestnut produces showy pyramidal clusters of flowers 6-12 in (15.2-30.5 cm) tall in late spring when the tree is fully leafed out. The flowers are white with yellow, aging to pink markings. The fruits, ripening in early autumn, are spiny husks that split open when mature to reveal 1-3 smooth, shiny reddish brown "buckeyes" or "conkers." The wintertime leaf and flower buds are large, to 1 in (2.5 cm) long. They are covered with a sticky gum and they open very rapidly when the first warming rays of spring sunshine melt the gum. 'Baumannii' has double flowers and does not produce fruit. 'Pumila' is a dwarf form. 'Pyramidalis' has ascending branches and a pyramidal shape.
Horsechestnut is native to Bulgaria, Albania and Greece. It was introduced into western Europe in the 1600's and the U.S. in the 1700's. Horsechestnut is a popular ornamental and shade tree in Europe and the American Northeast and Midwest.
CultureHorsechestnut, Aesculus hippocastanum, grows very rapidly in moist, well-drained soils. It tolerates all but soggy soils. Light: Full sun to partial shade. Moisture: Regular garden watering. Horsechestnut does poorly in very dry positions. Hardiness: USDA Zones x - x. Horsechestnut does best in cool climates and is marginal in zone 8. Propagation: Sow horsechestnut nuts as soon as they ripen. Named cultivars are grafted onto seedlings.
The horsechestnut is suitable for large lawns as a specimen tree or deciduous shade tree. It is widely cultivated in European gardens and parks and sometimes used as an avenue tree. Horsechestnut is more tolerant of air pollution than many trees. In winter, the bare horsechestnut is very attractive with its spreading branches that turn up on the ends. The wood is soft and weak and of little value. An extract from the bark has been used internally to treat fever and externally to treat ulcers. Horsechestnut fruits are occasionally used as cattle and horse food, especially in Asia, but only after they are soaked in lime water to remove the bitterness. In England, young boys stockpile horsechestnut fruits for self defense and for use in the game of conkers.
First you select a firm, uncracked conker and carefully bore a hole through the middle of it. (Don't skewer your hand.) Thread a piece of string through the hole and tie a knot at one end, so that it can't pull through. The string should be long enough to wrap twice around your hand and still have about 10 in (25.4 cm) left. The first player holds his arm out with his conker hanging down about 10 in (25.4 cm). The other player wraps his string around his hand, and holding the conker in the other hand, draws it back, takes aim, and swings the conker in an arc trying to hit the other player's conker. Then the other player gets a turn and the game goes on until one of the conkers is smashed to bits. Some people harden their conkers by soaking them in vinegar, others by warming in the oven. Year-old conkers are said to be really hard.
There are some 15 species of buckeyes or horsechestnuts in Asia, Europe and North America. Yellow buckeye (A. flava) is a tree native to the eastern U.S. with yellow flowers and smaller leaves, but otherwise similar to horsechestnut. Red buckeye (A. pavia) and bottlebrush buckeye (A. parviflora) are both very attractive shrubs or small trees native to the SE U.S.
Horsechestnut fruits are poisonous if ingested without treatment. Novice conker players can get bruised knuckles.
Steve Christman 10/23/00; updated 10/14/03