Sunday, May 18, 2008

Horse chestnuts

Don't eat them. They're poisonous. Horses should abstain as well. But horse chestnuts do have their uses. The British government paid schoolchildren to collect them during World War I. Horse chestnuts even had a role to play in the creation of the state of Israel. See below.

Horse chestnuts, Aesculus hippocastanum, make a spectacular display of huge, white flowers at this time of year. The large horse chestnut pictured in flower above is on the front lawn at 1127 Watchung Avenue. Another handsome example is at 621 Berkeley Avenue, shown below.

The attractive leaves are palmately compound, their leaflets arranged like a seven-fingered hand.

Beautiful as these trees are, they have an Achilles' heel: drought and fungal leaf blotch reliably disfigure the foliage by midsummer. I daily pass by a row of horse chestnuts used as street trees at the corner of Hillside and Evergreen Avenues. In July I look for early signs of damage. By August I avert my eyes; the sight is painful. The photographs below were taken in September of 2007.

The hybrid red horse chestnut, Aesculus x carnea, is less troubled by leaf problems. Red horse chestnuts are uncommon in Plainfield. Two were planted in front of City Hall two or three years ago. There is a wonderful red horse chestnut that can be glimpsed from the street in the rear garden at 429 Stelle Avenue. This beautiful tree was recognized by the City of Plainfield as a specimen tree of special note at the Arbor Day observance in 2006. Its age is estimated at 120 years.

Uses of horse chestnuts:

Nutritional: Although horses shouldn't eat horse chestnuts, the nuts do provide nourishment to public enemies number 1 and number 2: deer and squirrels.

Medicinal: Horse chestnut extracts are used as herbal medicines.

Recreational: Horse chestnuts are the "conkers" used in the game of conkers played in the British Isles.

Military?: Indeed. Back to the creation of Israel: Chaim Weizmann, Zionist and first president of Israel, began his career as a chemist. Professor Weizmann of Manchester University refined a method of producing acetone by bacterial fermentation of starches in various foodstuffs just before World War I. Acetone was crucial to production of cordite, smokeless gunpowder. The Weizmann process was used to make acetone for the war effort. When war made corn and other starches scarce in Britain, Weizmann adapted his fermentation process to use horse chestnuts in place of corn. Schoolchildren were enlisted in the war effort to gather horse chestnuts to produce munitions. Minister of Munitions David Lloyd George, who had worked with Weizmann, became prime minister. Lloyd George's gratitude for Professor Weizmann's war contributions was such that it led to the 1917 Balfour Declaration, which stated Britain's support for "a national home for the Jewish people" in Palestine.(1)

(1) For more detail on the role horse chestnuts played in the creation of Israel, see

Copyright Gregory Palermo