Herb to Know: Horse Chestnut

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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.

Herbalists use horse chestnut externally to treat painful joints, strains and sprains as well as internally for coughs, colds and congestion. Historically, the bark, leaves, flowers and seeds all were used, but today, extracts are processed from the seeds only. The seeds contain antioxidants; anti-inflammatory compounds, such as rutin; and the phytochemical aescin, used to treat vascular conditions, such as chronic venous insufficiency, varicose veins and hemorrhoids. Note: Used internally, horse chestnut is a powerful herb and should be used under the supervision of a qualified herbalist or medical professional.

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