Herb to Know: Horse Chestnut

| April/May 2006

Genus: Aesculus hippocastanum

• Zones 6 to 9

With a beauty all its own, this majestic ornamental tree is a powerful magnet for hummingbirds and humans alike.

A stroll through any well-landscaped park can be inspiring, but if you happen upon a horse chestnut tree displaying its showy panicles of pink flowers with white polka dots in late spring, the experience can be breathtaking.

The horse chestnut — a European native — belongs to a genus of about 15 species of deciduous shrubs and lofty trees. The common, or European, horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) can grow 70 to 100 feet tall with a dense canopy of foliage that casts deep shade. The smaller red horse chestnut (A. xcarnea) — so named for its reddish-pink blooms — is smaller in stature, but still grows to 30 to 40 feet.

Palmate leaves form the backdrop for beautiful blooms that adorn the tree like hundreds of foot-tall candelabras, dispensing nectar for nearby hummingbirds. Inside the prickly seedpods — round, leathery greenish fruits known as conkers — are several inedible glossy seeds emerging from their pods in fall. The fresh, bitter seeds are toxic unless properly processed.

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