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.