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Few things remind us of autumn more than conkers; the seeds of the magnificent horse chestnut tree. This tree that frequently adorns our parks, streets and gardens is actually quite a ‘johnny come lately” to this country. It originates from the Balkans and was only introduced here at the end of the 16th century.
It has a beautiful spreading crown and as well as its autumn crop of conkers, has the most attractive flowers which form distinctive white spires in the spring . Their appearance has led to the colloquial name of ‘candles’. This flowering is celebrated every May at Bushy Park, London, where a mile long Chestnut Avenue was planted in 1699 by none other than Sir Christopher Wren. ‘Chestnut Sunday’ as its known, was abandoned at the start of World War II, but re-established in 1977 and every year people gather to parade, picnic and appreciate the trees at their very best. As well as looking beautiful, the flowers are a valuable source of pollen and nectar for insects, and especially bees.
But it’s the conkers that the trees are most known for amongst schoolchildren. They are the seeds for the next generation of trees and their dispersal largely depends on gravity. They fall from a great height, which breaks the green, prickly outer casing and the conkers bounce or roll to their final location, where they will hopefully germinate. They’re unable to depend on animals to help with dispersal, because conkers are poisonous to all but deer and wild boar. Although surprisingly, in the tree’s native home, horses have traditionally been treated for various ailments using them, which is thought to be one explanation for the name. Another theory is that it may derive from the horseshoe shaped scar that is left by the leafstalk after the leaf has fallen.
But many of the conkers, which have a variety of vernacular names such as Obblyonkers or Cheggies, never get to germinate. These lovely shiny brown seeds are gathered up by children, hardened off, threaded on a piece of string and used to bash against one another (ideally reducing one to smithereens) in the eponymous game of conkers. The occurrence of the game was first recorded on the Isle of Wight in 1848 and the Conkers World Championship is now held annually at Southwick in Northamptonshire. The idea was conceived in Ashton in 1965, but had to be relocated because it grew so popular that they needed a larger site! On a more serious note, the British Government actually offered a monetary reward for the collection of conkers during both World Wars. Being a source of acetone, they were used to make cordite for manufacturing armaments.
Unfortunately, as with so many of our trees, the Horse Chestnut is susceptible to certain diseases such as bleeding canker, which can kill the tree, and from attack by the caterpillar of the horse chestnut leaf miner moth. The latter can weaken the tree and make it more susceptible to other stresses. On the positive side, the caterpillars are a valuable source of protein for birds during the nesting season.
So next time you visit the Rec be sure to check out the Horse Chestnut trees; there are still conkers to be had and yours could be a champion!