The horse-chestnut, Aesculus hippocastanum, is an iconic, instantly recognisable tree in the UK. It is neither a UK native, being introduced from Turkey in the 16th century, nor is it a chestnut.
It is currently in flower. The clusters of white flowers with pink bits are often said to resemble candelabras. These provide pollen and nectar for bees and other insects and the tree is in turn pollinated by them.
Once pollinated the flowers then produce fruits in the autumn. These are encased in a sharp spiky shell which breaks open to reveal the glossy conker within. These will then be avidly collected by children (and some adults) to be used in the game of “conkers”. Each conker is threaded onto some string and the dualists take turns to bash the other’s conker until one breaks. The game originally used snail shells, so there is some speculation that the word conker came from “conch”. The first recorded use of horse-chestnuts for this game is in 1848. There are regional variations of the name conkers; obblyonkers, cheggies or cobblers. There has been a world championship competition since 1965.
Other uses for conkers include as a treatment for coughs in horses, which may be where the name arises. Care has to be taken though as conkers are poisonous to horses. The only animals that seem able to eat them safely are deer and wild boar. They were also used, with limited success to make cordite during the two World Wars, as I previously mentioned in more detail in my One Hundredth … blog post.