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Horse Chestnut

Horse Chestnut Herb
genus Aesculus comprises about 20-25 species of deciduous trees and shrubs native to the temperate northern hemisphere, with 7-10 species native to North America and 13-15 species native in Eurasia; there are also several natural hybrids. They have traditionally been treated in their own monogeneric family Hippocastanaceae, but genetic evidence shows that this family, along with the maples (formerly Aceraceae), are better included in the soapberry family (Sapindaceae), as the differences between the three groups are small and of doubtful significance.

The North American species are known as Buckeyes and the Eurasian species as Horse-chestnuts. Some are also sometimes called "White Chestnut" or "Red Chestnut" (as in some of the Bach flower remedies). The name Horse-chestnut, hyphenated here to avoid confusion with the true chestnuts (Castanea, Fagaceae), is also often given as 'Horse Chestnut' or 'Horsechestnut'. One species very popular in cultivation, the Common Horse-chestnut Aesculus hippocastanum is also often known as just 'Horse-chestnut'. The use of the term 'horse' refers to their strength or inedibility, the word 'horse' originaly meant strong/powerful and does not here refer their fitness as fodder for horses, except in folk etymology. The name buckeye derives from the resemblance of the seed to the brown eye of a buck (male deer), and horse-chestnut from the external resemblance of the seed to a chestnut, but being inedible.

Aesculus are woody plants from 4 to 35 m tall (depending on species), and have stout shoots with resinous, often sticky, buds; opposite, palmately divided leaves, often very large (to 65 cm across in the Japanese Horse-chestnut Aesculus turbinata); and showy insect-pollinated flowers, with a single four- or five-lobed petal (actually four or five petals fused at the base). Flowering starts after 80-110 growing degree days. The fruit is a rich glossy brown to blackish-brown nut 2-5 cm diameter, usually globose with one nut in a green or brown husk, but sometimes two nuts together in one husk, in which case the nuts are flat on one side; the point of attachment of the nut in the husk shows as a large circular whitish scar. The husk has scattered soft spines in some species, spineless in others, and splits into three sections to release the nut.

The most familiar member of the genus worldwide is the Common Horse-chestnut Aesculus hippocastanum, native to a small area of the Balkans in southeast Europe, but widely cultivated throughout the temperate world. The Yellow Buckeye Aesculus flava (syn. A. octandra) is also a valuable ornamental tree with yellow flowers, but is less widely planted. Among the smaller species, the Bottlebrush Buckeye Aesculus parviflora also makes a very interesting and unusual flowering shrub. Several other members of the genus are used as ornamentals, and several horticultural hybrids have also been developed, most notably the Red Horse-chestnut A. x
Horse Chestnut Herb
carnea, a hybrid between A. hippocastanum and A. pavia.

They are generally fairly problem-free, though a recently discovered leaf-mining moth Cameraria ohridella is currently causing major problems in much of Europe, causing premature leaf fall which looks very unattractive. The symptoms (brown blotches on the leaves) can be confused with damage caused by the leaf fungus Guignardia aesculi, which is also very common but usually less serious. Common Horse-chestnut is also used as a food plant by The Sycamore, another species of moth.

The nuts contain high concentrations of a saponin toxic to many animals including humans because it causes hemolysis (destruction of red blood cells). The saponin can be eliminated by leaching the pulverized nuts in multiple changes of boiling water, to yield a wholesome starchy porridge once important to some Native American tribes. Some animals, notably deer, are resistant to the toxins and can eat the nuts directly.

Crushed buckeye nuts have also been used, thrown into lakes by poachers, to kill fish for easy capture.

California Buckeyes Aesculus californica are known to cause poisoning of honeybees from toxic nectar (other locally native bee species not being affected). Other buckeye species are thought to have the same effect, but the toxins are diluted because the trees are not usually abundant enough in any one area.

The wood is very pale whitish-brown, fairly soft and little-used. Uses include cheap furniture, boxes and firewood.

In several European countries a new disease has been found in several species of Aesculus. For more information check (in Dutch).

In Britain and Ireland the game of conkers remains a common childhood pastime.

The Mexican Buckeye is related to Aesculus, but is in a separate genus, Ungnadia.

Other useful herb information: Alfalfa | Shiitake | Garlic | Pennyroyal | Snakeroot | Lemon Verbena | Vitex

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