A staple part of any British childhood is to play a game of conkers; a game which has, in recent years, become the butt of health and safety jokes, with some primary schools putting strict safety rules in place. But what is the humble conker?

The horse chestnut tree can grow up to 40m in height and live for 300 years.  Each autumn, as their leaves turn to orange and fall to the ground, the tree sheds its seeds from their spiky casings.

The wood of the horse chestnut tree is not particularly strong, so is not really sought after for for many purposes.  It is absorbs, which makes it good for the production of fruit racks to help keep the fruit dry and reduce rotting.  Extracts of the leaves and fruits of the tree contain aescin and aesculin which have anti-inflammatory properties, making them useful in herbal remedies.  Conkers, the seeds of the horse chestnut, are not suitable for human consumption, but are used in some cosmetics and toiletries.

There are two age-old stories as to how the horse chestnut got its name:

  1. When the stalk of the leaves are pulled off, they leave a horse-shoe shaped scar on the twigs, which is even complete with “nail holes.”
  2. Conkers used to be fed to horses to help “cure” coughs in the days before veterinary science was invented and was able to produce cures.

The horse chestnut is non-native in origin, coming originally from the Balkan peninsular.  It was introduces to the UK from Turkey in the late 16th century and is listed as Near Threatened on the Global IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, with the National Forest Inventory estimating the there are now only 470,000 trees in the UK.   Perhaps this is one candidate for planting during National Tree Week?

Have you got any conkers lying around from earlier in the year?  Why not have a game?

Until next time, keep calm and apply some Science.

Read more: