Seeds of The Horse Chestnut or Conker Tree (Aesculus hippocastanum)

Conkers (Horse chestnut seeds)
Horse chestnut seeds are called conkers

While not a native tree, characterful flowers, leaves and seeds have made the horse chestnut tree so wildly grown that it is (or should be) part of every British childhood. Tough, spiky cases with an inner layer of padding protect large, polished chestnut-coloured seeds (conkers) while they form.

One of my memories of Autumn ’22 will be standing under the canopy of the biggest horse chestnut tree in Bold Venture Park to see if any fine conkers were left in the leaf litter underneath, a habit that dies hard. Better than that, I soon discovered, turn and turn about, conkers tippling their balance from unreadiness to ripeness in a decisive instant were slowly, heavily, falling around me.

Such a normal fact of nature, yet not something we often stop to experience. With a breeze rocking the branches, a chestnut or two landed every minute or so. The tree is on a slope and I watched the conkers thud, bounce and roll.

Their hardened cases are plant versions of the mean-looking spiked balls medieval knights dangled from sticks. Making an effort to discount the chance of one striking me on the head , I found their languid, absent-minded dropping from the tree oddly soothing. More than I had expected were falling without their shells; some fell already bitten. Squirrels’ work.

I picked out two or three to bring home although my conkers-playing days may well be over.

Horse chestnut seeds, one partly in its spiky case

For any readers who have missed out on the game of conkers, here’s how you do it:

Every expert has a different method of selecting and hardening the seeds. Never a conkers extremist, I look for big, round, unmarked ones and just leave them to shrivel. Next, you pierce their centres and hang each one on a knotted string.

The Woodland Trust explains how to ‘check for duds’ and has a detailed 4-step plan, but all boils down to a phrase hidden in step 3, ‘try and bash it’.

An untried conker is a none-er. On its first victory it becomes a one-er, then a two-er and upwards. Knuckles are rapped almost as often as conkers, if my memory holds.

Some local versions of the game decree that when you split a conker, you get a point for the win and inherit all the loser’s victories. Aeschylean rules, giving a nod to the botanical name, Aesculus hippocastanum, add an extra challenge. You lose a point after every three wins (each trilogy of wins) as a reminder that tragedy is unfair, that we should not fall prey to hubris and we ought to have respect for the conquered.*

Pile of brown, shiny conkers

My pictures, shared for Becky’s WalkingSquares, show a mystery trove I found a couple of days ago near a children’s playground while walking up to Blacksnape.

It’s another chance to wonder. Who would collect so many and abandon them, some still in their shells? A purist? Imagine the excellence of the ones they selected.

* Alright, I confess – I made up the Aeschylean rules.

47 Replies to “Seeds of The Horse Chestnut or Conker Tree (Aesculus hippocastanum)”

    1. We colloquially use ‘conk’ for nose, so ‘conked’ could have meant being punched on the nose. Which weirdly reminds me of another instruction I often heard shouted in the playground – ‘On me crust!’ -meaning kick the football where I can head it, crust being the top of the head.

  1. Having left England at age eight (and now in my seventies), I had forgotten all about conkers! Thanks for a fun reminder (although I still have no idea how it’s actually played. Sort of like American baseball, football and other sports).

  2. I love that you made up the Aeschylean rules, hehe! There weren’t many trees in Caithness, where I was brought up, so I missed out on conkers. I do however remember the clackers, argh!

  3. Like Jo I thought this was an entry for Jude’s textures but of course it works well as a square for Becky 🙂 Somehow it’s hard to resist the shiny beauty of a conker, however old we are. And you fooled me for a moment with your ‘Aeschylean rules’ 😆

  4. I’m still not sure I understand the game, but I still can’t resist picking up a few when I come across a tree! You’re right, someone was quite determined to build up a collection there.

    1. Basically you hold out your chestnut on the end of a string for the other person to try to hit hard enough to split it and if they fail, you get your turn to split theirs.

      1. Haha, simple enough and I don’t know why I couldn’t figure that out before. I think I was trying to make too much out of it. Thanks!

  5. This was a whole lot of newness to me! Recently you mentioned a book that I put on my Christmas list, and the first word in the title was “Conkers.” I had no idea what that was but I sure wanted to know. There is no such game in my wild childhood, but I grew up spelling “conked” instead of “konked,” so there was some influence there I didn’t realize. Your photos show how beautiful brown can be. “Turn and turn about” sounds like a children’s game chant — is it? I love the description of you and the rain of conkers. One has to wonder about the sense of humor that trees might have.

    1. Good idea. We’ll imagine that each conker case comes with a joke inside, ready to be cracked, like a Christmas cracker. I do associate ‘turn and turn about’ with children’s games. It’s an old-fashioned term for taking turns to do something, although that bit was probably self-evident.

  6. Great memory for me. Growing up in New England with my chestnut tree taught me about nature. It was my climbing tree. My tire swing tree. There was also a large branch that I shined out on to slowly rock in the branches. I rocked up and down in the air. Yes, people played the game you called conkers too. However they would come onto my yard and destroy the branches to get the chestnuts. I found some kids doing that one day. It made me mad. I was a kid who loved her tree. Confronted the kids gave me lip. I stood firm and routed the defilers of my tree. They left. My tree was saved.

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