Horse Chestnuts (All About)
Horse Chestnut trees are very common in Ireland and are easily identified at any time of year. They are not native to Ireland, they originate in the Balkan regions, but were introduced in the 1600s — probably as great dignified trees to enhance estates formed during the plantations of that century.Read moreRead less
Probably as a result of originating in such a warm part of Europe, they are the very first large tree species to get their leaves in spring. The large brown sticky buds open in March. The leaves are compound — which means that seven leaflets radiate out from one stalk that joins to the twig. By May the tree is covered in large white clumps of flowers that remind people of candles and are beloved of bees, who make very fine honey from the nectar. This work by the bees also results in the flowers being pollinated and the formation of fruits and seeds.
By mid-summer it is easy to see the green prickly fruits which contain the seeds or conkers. These ripen quickly and by late September begin to fall and burst open revealing the brown shiny chestnuts inside. They are the first trees to get leaves in spring and indeed the first to lose them as well. The leaves look decidedly withered and yellow in September and are easily blown away by the winds of late September and early October.
The trees are then set to overwinter in this dormant state and we have to wait until spring for the sap to rise and the cycle to begin all over again. But why are they called “horse” chestnuts? It could be because the word “horse” in biological terms means big and coarse and the nuts are bigger and coarser than those of the edible sweet chestnut. Or it could be because the Turks used to feed conkers to horses to cure them of coughs. But it probably is because of the little horseshoe marks (complete with nails) on each twig, as if a little horse had walked there leaving its footprints behind. In herb medicine, they contain cures for varicose veins.
Things to do
1. Examine twigs in spring to see sticky buds and horseshoe marks.
2. Note when the buds open and encourage the pupils to keep a record each year as they move up through school.
3. Collect conkers in autumn and thread them on strings to play at “conkers” hitting them one off another in turn to see whose breaks first — a traditional game.
4. Collect some — keep in a paper bag over the winter and plant in pots in early spring. They are really easy to grow and can be planted out in their second year.