Horse Chestnuts

These nuts are useful and may even bring you luck.

  • The white flowers of this western Asia native tree contrast well against the deep green leaves.
  • In autumn, the spiny capsules fall to the ground and break into two or three pieces, revealing one to three of the brown horse chestnuts.
    Photo by Steven Nikkila
  • The white flowers of this western Asia native tree contrast well against the deep green leaves.
    Photo by Rick Wetherbee
  • The spiny fruits of the horse chestnut tree are about 2 to 21/2 inches in diameter. They are much different than the pods of the sweet chestnut tree, which are covered thickly with needlelike quills resembling a porcupine or sea urchin.
    Photo by Jerry Pavia

On a blustery day in November I pulled out my heavy wool coat and found a horse chestnut in the pocket. Rather, I rediscovered the horse chestnut, for it had been in my pocket since the previous autumn, a memento from a business trip to Northern Italy. A winter’s worth of rolling the nut absent-mindedly between my fingers had inadvertently burnished it with the oils from my hand, rendering it smooth as a worry stone, lustrous as melted bittersweet chocolate.

A vacation with my relatives in their quiet mountain village outside Torino had brought me to Italy, but I also planned to meet with a literary agent in Milan, two hours away by train. Over coffee and grappa with cousins and friends the afternoon before the meeting, I expressed my trepidation. My Italian, I worried, wasn’t fluent enough to carry out the business at hand. My wardrobe, my makeup, my hairstyle, all lacked the artistic flair and urban edginess that the Milanese place at such a premium. And at the small publishing house where I worked in Vermont, we had taken to calling the woman with whom I was to meet La Dragona for her volatility. With one fiery rant she might well snuff me out completely. How could I ever hope to make a good impression on the Dragon Lady?

The answer, I was told, was simple. Alongside the road stood a magnificent ippocastano, a horse chestnut tree, which had recently started dropping its nuts. I had only to stop there and find a firm, sound horse chestnut for my pocket. When I went to Milan it would bring me good luck.

Maybe not good luck in general, my cousin Caterina told me. But her mother had always kept three horse chestnuts in her purse during the winter to ward off colds. I might as well give it a try, she said; at the very least, I wouldn’t catch cold on the way to Milan.

All this came as news to me. I had always considered these tough, round nuts as little more than garden debris—something to rake up and dispense with in the autumn, or something to fear being pelted by as they fell. I’d once heard of a British children’s game of conkers, whereby players pierce a hole through a nut with a needle and thread it with a long piece of twine to make a “conker.” They take turns swinging at each other’s conker, aiming to break it, and the winner—the “conker-er”—is the player who survives without having his own conker smashed in two. This is entertainment of the highest order for eight-year-old boys. But I had been courting suggestions, and it seemed foolish not to avail myself of a talisman so easily obtained. So after coffee I walked down the road to the ippocastano. The next morning, with a horse chestnut in my pocket, I set out for Milan.

Although I had yet to discover the horse chestnut’s many merits, I knew enough even then to distinguish it, Aesculus hippocastanum, from the delicious Castanea sativa of roasting-on-an-open-fire fame. Native to western Asia, the horse chestnut tree is an elegant ornamental with deep green leaves, long and leathery, which grow in radiant clusters like outstretched fingers. Ten-inch pyramidal racemes of white flowers, spotted red and yellow at the base, cover the tree like candelabra each spring, and they produce brown, spiny seed capsules each fall that burst upon dropping to the ground, revealing two to three brown, shiny nuts. The tree grows rapidly to a height of fifty feet or more, even under the inhospitable conditions often found in urban environments, with their tired soils, poor drainage, and unclean air. Consequently, the horse chestnut tree had been planted throughout Europe by the sixteenth century, lending shade and a stately air to many city boulevards and formal gardens. Soon after, the tree made its way to North America with the colonists, where it propagated readily from seed, flourishing and naturalizing alongside several indigenous New World species.

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