I love conkers. As a little girl, I’d hoard the shiny brown seeds in autumn, hiding them away somewhere only to be dismayed upon coming back to them that they’d lost their beautiful lustre, fading and shrivelling into sad, dull balls. The idea of drilling holes in them and using them to crack other conkers open was mildly horrifying (although maybe I was just an odd child). They still fascinate me, rolling about on the pavement as if a mahogany sideboard had melted into a thousand perfect droplets, and I always have to stop myself from picking them up and carrying them about with me all day, because people tend to give you funny looks if you do that sort of thing as a grown-up (alas).
The plant which produces them, the Horse Chestnut tree (Aesculus hippocastanum) is also a beautiful piece of work. It’s not a species that is native to the UK, coming originally from south-east Europe and introduced in the 1600’s. One of my favourite things about the tree, besides its incredible stature, extravagant flowers and huge bright green leaves, is its ‘sticky buds’- as soon as the year’s foliage is shed, the following year’s developing leaves are wrapped up in a sort of botanical fly-paper, super-sticky to touch and designed to repel anything that fancies a munch (imagine chewing sellotape).
Note also that the leaf-scar, visible in the picture below, looks a bit like the outline of a horse’s hoof, which could be the reason behind the tree’s name. One Eugene A. Connell noted this in a letter to Nature in 1870, where he states that ‘All over its branches, at every bud, can be seen what at a glance will be taken for an exact conformation of the foot of a horse […] in marvellous miniature’.
Sadly, the Horse Chestnut has been suffering a little in recent years. It is afflicted by a leaf miner moth, which lays its eggs in the leaves and whose larvae eat them from the inside out. Although this is bad news for the tree, it can be quite fun to dissect a stricken leaf and find the wiggly little caterpillar inside (not recommended for the squeamish, heartily recommended for toddlers and people with child-like curiosity). You can also help scientists track the leaf miner’s progress across the UK using this cool app.
Essentially, the Horse Chestnut tree is much more than conker-producing factory, and offers a range of botanical curios all year round- take a closer look!