The Horse Chestnut TreeThe source of conkers is the Horse Chestnut tree, which was first introduced to Britain from the Balkans in the late 16th century. It was not until about 200 years later that their fruits were used to play the game of conkers. Before that, conkers was played with hazel, cobnuts or snail shells.
The Horse Chestnut is a popular ornamental tree frequently found in parks, gardens and churchyards throughout the country. The tree flowers from April to May and the flower-spikes are popularly known as 'candles', as they seem to light up the tree. The fruits of the tree resemble those of the Sweet Chestnut. They develop in prickly cases and ripen in September and October.
The tree earnt its name for 2 reasons. Firstly the fruits were fed to horses in the East as a stimulant and to make their coat shine. Secondly the leaf-scars on the twigs have the shape of a horseshoe, including the nail holes. Check it out next time you get the chance!
The British PopulationThe National Woodland Inventory of Woodland Trees estimates there are 470,000 Horse Chestnut trees in Great Britain:
The Uses of ConkersThe wood of the Horse Chestnut is of poor quality and is used for purposes such as making packing cases. As a firewood, it will make both heat and flame but it tends to spit a lot.
The nuts are rich in starch but they are not suitable for human consumption due to the presence of saponins, which are soap-like chemicals. They have been made into a food for horses and cattle in the past, either by soaking them in lime-water to reduce their bitterness or by soaking in water overnight before being boiled, ground up and added to the rest of the fodder.
Conkers have also been carried in the pocket to help prevent piles and rheumatism. According to a letter which appeared in the Daily Telegraph, conkers are an effective way to keep spiders out of the house when placed in the corners of rooms. However, over a period, the conkers dry up and become ineffective.