Why Britain has grown to love the spreading chestnut
Thursday 24 August 2006
There is much more to the horse chestnut tree than conkers. Its flowering is one of the most spectacular sights of the spring.
The broad leaves spread out in a brilliant iridescent green and above them open the the tall, upright, white or pink "Roman candles", the biggest blossoms of any British tree.
They are so splendid in that flowering time, lasting a fortnight, that they are among Britain's most beloved trees, but they are not native. The natural home of Aesculus hippocastanum is south-eastern Europe, the Balkans and Turkey, where it grows in rocky landscapes very different from the parks and avenues of Britain.
The first trees were planted here in the early 17th century by John Tradescant the Elder, an Elizabethan gardener and botanist, and they soon became a regular ornamental feature in the gardens of stately homes across the country. The name originates from the practice of adding the fruits, conkers, to horses' feed, although the tree is not related to the rather similar-looking sweet chestnut, Castanea sativa, which produces the things we eat from winter braziers and add to turkey stuffing.
The horse chestnut's hard, glossy brown (but inedible) fruits were themselves not named until the 19th century, when they replaced cobnuts and snail shells in the already popular game of conkers.
The tree's weak wood is not particularly valuable. Its limited uses include making trays for fruit, toys and, until recently, artificial limbs, because it is so light and easily shaped.
However, extracts from the tree are a common ingredient in shampoos, because their ability to stimulate surface blood vessels helps make hair healthy.
For the same reason, they are often added to bubble baths, and have been known to help varicose veins. What is more, in an accidental discovery, conkers left to ferment on a windowsill eventually led to the development of sunscreen.
But the tree's most interesting contribution to history came during the First World War, when scientists developed a way of using conkers to manufacture a crucial component of the cordite which was used as a propellant in British shells.
In the autumn of 1917, schoolchildren from Britain collected 30,000 tons of conkers, managing to replace the supplies of corn (previously used in cordite manufacture) from Canada which had been cut off by the German submarine blockade, thus rescuing the British war effort.
Cow 'emissions' more damaging to planet than CO2 from cars
A high-rise home for 500,000 ants
Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Lynx to be reintroduced into wild in Britain after a 1,300-year absence
It's cowslips against honeysuckle in the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
- 1 Finland schools: Subjects scrapped and replaced with 'topics' as country reforms its education system
- 2 The West has it totally wrong on Lee Kuan Yew
- 3 #FreeTheNipple: Women in Iceland bare breasts in solidarity with trolled student
- 4 Scientists have discovered a simple way to cook rice that dramatically cuts the calories
- 5 Zayn Malik quits One Direction: Hundreds of workers request compassionate leave following band member's exit
Nigel Farage brands LGBT activists 'filth' and 'scum' and accuses them of scaring away his children after they invade his local pub
Ukip supporters are 55 or older, white and socially conservative, finds British Social Attitudes Report
JK Rowling responds to fan tweeting she 'can't see' Dumbledore being gay
Russia threatens Denmark with nuclear weapons if it tries to join Nato defence shield
Jeremy Clarkson sacked live: Alan Yentob 'wouldn't rule out' ex Top Gear host's BBC return
Germanwings plane crash live: Co-pilot Andreas Lubitz wanted to 'do something people would remember him for'
£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...
£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped commission: SThree: Does earning a 6 figu...
£18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...
£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A challenging opportunity for a...