Conkers, the nuts from the horse-chestnut tree, are a real sign of autumn; they are the most beautiful fruit of a handsome tree, glossy and rich hidden in the bright green, prickly casing. Of course, as is the way, the horse-chestnut is not actually a nut at all… the tree’s proper name is aesculus hippocastanum and it is a native of the Balkans, and distantly related to the lychee. it is a massive but beautiful tree, with a wonderful shape to it. it can grow to 120 feet or more, and as a deciduous tree it graces us with different colours at different times of the year.
In the spring the buds are brown and sticky, and look like dates, or delicious sweetmeats, but I guess they aren’t edible. When the leaves emerge, the look like butterflies just broken from their chrysalis, their leaflets (five or seven) like brilliant lime-green damp wings. They darken through almost every shade of green until the autumn when they give us a beautiful display of oranges and browns.
The flowers are either white or pink, and if you get close to one, it is the most beautiful and delicate blossom, and yet when you see the tree from afar they are just a big mass of colour. For years and years we believed that there were no red chestnuts in the cathedral city of Ely… we thought our cousin who lives there had told us that… he says he didn’t so we obviously misheard him – but I wonder how many other people believe it is so, friends who we have told?!
One thing i didn’t know, which I’ve just learned is ‘the leaf scars left on twigs after the leaves have fallen have a distinctive horseshoe shape, complete with seven “nails”.’ The name horse-chestnut comes apparently from the fact that the tree is similar in a way to an actual chestnut, an edible chestnut, and maybe that the horse-chestnut fruit is poisonous to horses… In fact the two trees are only very distant cousins!
The fruit – not nut, is contained in a green coat, and inside the fruit, not nut, is revealed glossy and beautiful! These we call conkers, and are a much-loved part of most people’s childhood!