Have you ever played “conkers”? It’s a children’s game that uses horse chestnuts.
A string is passed, through a hole made in the chestnut and fastened by a knot at one end. Players then strike their chestnuts against each other’s in an attempt to break their opponent’s conkers. The last remaining unbroken chestnut is declared the winner. Adults also enjoy this game – in fact, there is an annual World Conker Championship, started in 1965, and currently held in Peterborough, England.
Children wouldn’t need to look very far for potential conkers in Westmount Park – there are several horse chestnut trees with their glossy brown seeds strewn around their trunks. (Although, the best conkers are those that are caught as they fall off the tree).
Although named “chestnuts”, horse chestnuts (Aesculus hippocastanum) contain the toxin aesculin and should not be confused with a distant relative, the American chestnut (Castanea dentata) that bears edible seeds distinguished by their pointed tips. Interestingly, the horse chestnut’s roots secrete poisons (phytotoxins) that inhibits the growth of any nearby plants.
There is a beautiful horse chestnut tree near the Lansdowne entrance to the park that can be easily recognized by its long (12-24 cm) ovate (egg-shaped) palm-like leaves in groups of 5-7.
The tree is covered with a spectacular array of blossom between May and June. The flowers are in bunches of forty that occur at the end of each branch. Each flower grows vertically (called a “candle”) and collectively they grow in a whorl-like fashion (called a “candelabra”). Each petal contains a claw that presses against the stamen protecting the nectar from rain and damaging insects.
The beauty of these trees comes from the variation of colours within each cluster of flowers that ranges from yellow to a brilliant crimson. The range of colours are the result of younger flowers containing yellow spots that act as nectar guides for pollinating insects – once pollinated these spots change to a deep crimson colour.
The tree’s native distribution is restricted the Balkan Peninsula and remained cultivated within the boundaries of the Ottoman Empire until the 1500s.
The first known description of the tree was from a letter dated 1557 from the Holy Roman Emperor’s physician to a colleague in Prague:
“A species of chestnut frequently found here…which has ‘horse’ as its common second name, because devoured …they give relief to horses sick with chest complaints…”
It wasn’t long until the tree was introduced throughout Western Europe – today it can be found in temperate regions throughout the world.
Finally, when walking by these trees in the park, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s poignant description often comes to mind:
“She felt a little betrayed and sad, but presently a moving object came into sight. It was a huge horse-chestnut tree in full bloom bound for the Champs Elysees, strapped now into a long truck and simply shaking with laughter – like a lovely person in an undignified position yet confident none the less of being lovely. Looking at it with fascination, Rosemary identified herself with it, and laughed cheerfully with it, and everything all at once seemed gorgeous.” (“Tender is the Night”)