Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Chestnut appreciation.

Oh look! Chestnuts! Real chestnuts. These are Spanish or sweet chestnuts, Castanea sativa.

Inside the burr are one or more edible nuts.

Just down the road, horse-chestnuts, Aesculus hippocastanum.

Here is an article I wrote about horse-chestnuts. Reading it, you might gather I am rather fond of horse chestnuts:

In the modern world, horse-chestnut trees drop their seeds and no one picks them up. Squirrels nab a few, and others roll into the street to be squashed, but a large percentage lie on the ground, uncollected and unloved, left to sink into the soft autumn soil.

When I was a child, horse-chestnuts were practically currency. Those polished mahogany nuggets that fit so satisfyingly in one’s hand were fought over. We wouldn’t wait for the fruits to ripen and open on their own. We would haul our dads’ ladders to the road next to the local school, climb as high as we dared and knock them down with our hockey sticks. Then we would use any means possible to tear through the tough leathery skin without pricking ourselves on the daunting spines.

The rationale was to accumulate conkers. You were supposed to drill a hole through the chestnut and then run a knotted shoelace through it. It was then a conker. You would take turns swinging, trying to break others’ conkers with yours. Eventually there would be only one left. Someone had conkered the world.

What happened more often than not was that you would hit your opponent’s arm, which would lead to chaos, or the knot would untie and the chestnut would hit a bystander, which would lead to more chaos.

The horse-chestnut is native to Eurasia, but because it grows to majestic size in any temperate area has been introduced all over the world as an ornamental. It is very common along boulevards and in city parks. In spring it bears upright clusters (panicles) of white flowers. The leaves consist of five or seven leaflets, arranged as fingers from a common base.

The seeds (the chestnuts) are not edible, and are toxic. These are not the Christmas roasting species. They are essentially useless, but fresh from their spiny cases are lustrous and irresistible. I recall that I was not collecting them to conker the world. For me it was for that moment when you fought your way past the thorns to reveal something mysterious and beautiful. The hundredth was as fantastic as the first.

Now, horse-chestnut fruits open on their own and the seeds lie unclaimed. I worry, are our children so disconnected with living things that they cannot see the magic in chestnuts? It’s all I can do not to fill my pockets.


Cicero Sings said...

I have a hard time resisting them myself, when we walk down Angus on our way to S. Granville, the Market and West 4th (all the way from SW Marine Drive).

A Local Naturalist said...

That's quite a hike!

pookie said...

They look like a luscious dark chocolate truffle. mmmmm.