Here in Britain the horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) is a glory of many of our landscapes. The horse chestnut or, as many people including me prefer to call it, the conker tree. It’s not a native species here but it’s been naturalised since about the 16th century.

This tree is named after its leaf scar which looks like a tiny horseshoe. Also perhaps because somebody realised that this plant can be a source of herbal medicine for horses. Like many plants the conker tree is where a useful pharmaceutical can be found. It contains the anti-inflammatory drug aescin.

Children may not be looking for pharmaceuticals but they’re always up for games. Conkers is a classic game. Where I grew up in the 1970s, it was played almost only by boys so I don’t recall having played it myself. Anyway I was more interested in learning about natural history, including plant identification, than in bashing conkers to bits. But the boys in my class carried conkers in their pockets and played with them a lot, in season. In more modern times some schools have banned conkers but I don’t think it’ll ever catch on. Kids will be kids. If they can’t bash each other’s conkers in the school playground they’ll do it in the park.

As I write this it’s mid September. The conker trees are in fruit and within a few weeks, the husks will ripen and turn from green to brown. Then when we get a few windy days and nights, the conkers will fall. They’re at their most beautiful when the husk has just split open and the nut is glossy inside. If you store them indoors they’ll keep for years, shrinking only a little and making fine reminders of autumn.


About argylesock

I wrote a PhD about veterinary parasitology so that's the starting point for this blog. But I'm now branching out into other areas of biology and into popular science writing. I'll write here about science that happens in landscapes, particularly farmland, and about science involving interspecific interactions. Datasets and statistics get my attention. Exactly where this blog will lead? That's a journey that I'm on and I hope you'll come with me.
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6 Responses to Conkers

  1. sharechair says:

    I remember reading a book that referred to children playing conkers. I had never heard of it, and had to turn to google for an explanation. Love to learn new things!

  2. Here in the US boys always threw them at each other. Great fun until someone got hurt; then the fists flew. We also used the fruits of the Catalpa tree; you know, those “Indian Cigars.” We would break them up into 2 inch pieces and throw them at each other. Great fun until – – – – . I guess boys are boys no matter where they live.

  3. I was really bad at conkers. I either forgot about them in vinegar, or shattered them trying to drill through them for the string. On the rare occasions I managed to get it work, I mostly hurt my knuckles.
    Then I found out you could eat them, and that was much better!

  4. eqfe says:

    My father’s generation, (and for a short time a few of my friends) played a very simplified version of the game, although it never had a name.. No one in that neighborhood ever said anything like “oddly, oddly, onker my first conker” that would be a good reason to get smacked upside the head. No around the world, or extra “goes” just alternating until someone one.
    “not native” but naturalized around the 16th century. I’ve always found it interesting, I guess because I’ve never had much land, that people plant trees that produce something that humans can’t eat, although they do produce food for wiildlife and shade for humans. How’s the disease situation with horse Chestnuts in the UK. The American chestnut is almost completely distroyed, and it made such beautiful wood.

  5. Pingback: Emerging disease threats to trees | Science on the Land

  6. Pingback: Swaddling clothes, gold, frankincense and myrrh | Science on the Land

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