Our familiar horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) is a native of the Balkans, and believed to have been introduced to Britain in the 1500s. It is particularly prized as an amenity tree in many parts of Europe, because of its striking flowers which can be seen in early June each year and its characteristic fruits – conkers – that are produced in September. The game of conkers is no longer just a past-time of children but even played at international level.
The National Woodland Inventory of Woodland Trees estimates there are 470,000 horse chestnut trees in Great Britain:
- England: 432,000
- Scotland: 29,100
- Wales: 11,100.
However, most of these trees are situated in non-woodland situations. Horse chestnut is only a significant component of British woodland (defined for this purpose as areas over 2 hectares) in a few cases - 51 hectares in England and 25 hectares in Wales (none in Scotland).
Most of the horse chestnuts in Britain are probably not accounted for in any national tree census, but are common along streets, in parks and gardens. Both planted and self-sown individuals also flourish along roadsides and in hedges. Horse chestnuts are able to tolerate a wide range of conditions including dry sandy soils, wet clays and chalk, but prefers moist, well-drained soils.
Further information on the distribution of horse chestnut in Britain is available via the National Biodiversity Network gateway.
Using horse chestnut
The wood of horse chestnut tends to be rather weak and for this reason has never been used widely, although it has absorbent properties which make it ideal for fruit racks and storage trays as it keeps the fruit dry and so prevents rotting.
Various extracts from horse chestnut leaves and fruits which contain the active ingredients aescin or aesculin are marketed as herbal remedies because of their anti-inflamatory properties.
Horse chestnut also has wildlife value: the nuts provide food for deer and other mammals and the flowers provide pollen for insects.
Apart from the horse chestnut which is the only Aesculus species native to Europe, there are twelve other species found throughout the northern hemisphere most of which are concentrated in eastern Asia, eastern USA. There is also a single species native to western North America and another native to northwestern Mexico (Hardin, 1960).
|Species of Hippocastanum||Common name||Native Range|
|A. hippocastanum||Horse chestnut||Bulgaria, N. Greece, S. Albania|
|A. x carnea||Red horse chestnut||Hybrids between A. hippocastanum and A. parva|
|A. turbinata||Japanese horse chestnut||Japan|
|A. californica||Buckeye||California, United States|
|A. parryi||Parry buckeye||California, Mexico|
|A. flava||Sweet or yellow buckeye||South east United States|
|A. glabra||Ohio buckeye||South east United States|
|A. parvia||Red buckeye||South east United States|
|A. parviflora||Dwarf buckeye||South east United States|
|A. sylvatica||South east United States|
|A. assamica||N. Siam, NW Indo-China, s. China, NE Pakistan, Bhutan|
|A. indica||Indian horse chestnut||NW Himalayas|
|A. chinensis||Chinese horse chestnut||China|
|A. wilsonii||Wilson's horse chestnut||Central China|
Table compiled from: Bean (1925) and Forest et al. (2001).