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School Watch

Horse Chestnut

Cno Capaill (Irish name)

Aesculus hippocastanum (Latin name)

How does this common tree get its name? To find out, all you need do is, snap off a leaf-stalk from one of its twigs and you will notice the horseshoe shaped scar present - hence the name Horse Chestnut! The horse chestnut tree is the common chestnut tree found in Ireland. It should not be confused with another tree call the Sweet Chestnut tree (or Spanish chestnut), which gets its name from the fact that its nuts are sweet and edible, most commonly, roasted. There are much fewer Sweet chestnut trees in Ireland.

The name Aesculus is actually a misnomer, coming originally from the word esca, meaning food. It was applied by ancient people to a certain species of Oak, but somehow the name was transferred over the years to the horse chestnut tree. The name hippocastanum is thought to refer to the horsechestnut's ability to heal horses and cattle of respiratory illnesses.

The common horse chestnut tree produces nuts (conkers) that are poisonous. However, some mammals (deer, horses) are able to break them down and eat them safely. They are also reputed to be good for horses with wind!

Most commonly, the nuts are used for the popular children's game Conkers, possibly originating from the word Conquerers. Another explanation is that it arises from the French word cogner meaning to hit or biff. In some parts of the world, this game is called Kingers. The first recorded game of Conkers took place on the Isle of Wight in 1848 and was modelled on a 15th century game played with hazelnuts.

Some hints to make your conkers harder:
Soak your conker in vinegar.
Bake your conker in the oven.
Use an old conker from previous years.

How to pick the best conker:
After collecting all your conkers, place them in a basin of water. Discard all those that float to the top and keep those at the bottom of the basin. These conkers will not be damaged and have a greater density, thereby ensuring they are better.

The nuts are actually a valuable herb used since the 1500's in Germany and France. Originally, it was used as a treatment for persistent fever and, later, to treat haemorrhoids, varicose veins and phlebitis.

In early May, the horse chestnut tree produces large distinctive white flowers, spotted yellow and red. These are commonly called candles, and the tree takes on the appearance of a large Christmas tree. Horse Chestnut trees' flower is the symbol of the city of Kiev, capital of Ukraine.

Occasionally you may see a chestnut tree with spectacular red flowers. This is a hybrid tree, a cross between our horse chestnut tree and the Red Buckeye tree (A North American tree). In America, horse chestnut trees are called buckeyes - because of the resemblance of the nut markings with the eye of a male deer (buck deer). However, this red chestnut is a fertile hybrid and reproduction from seed is not possible.

The leaves are very distinctive, forming 5 or 7 fingers or leaflets and are referred to as palmate leaves. It is most unlikely that you will mix up the horse chestnut tree with any other tree you might come across.

1. How does the conker get its name?

2. How did the Horse chestnut get its name?

3. From which chestnut tree do we get the edible nut?

4. What are buckeyes?

5. What are candles?

6. Give 2 uses of chestnuts.

7. Why are the leaves referred to as palmate?

8. What colour are Chestnut tree flowers?

9. Mention 2 ways in which you could harden chestnuts?

10. Why are chestnuts called conkers?



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