Horse chestnuts are here, so say good-bye to the summer


Coming out of my house the other day, I noticed with horror that the horse chestnut tree in our street was heavy with spiky green balls. Not that there is anything strange about that. It's just that conkers always remind me autumn is here once again and I start thinking about all those things I wanted to do during the summer but somehow haven't found the time to do so.

Just as I am surprised to see snow each winter, I rejoice like a child when the first spiky green capsules start falling to the ground in autumn and I immediately start searching among the fallen leaves for the glossy brown seeds. The best thing is to poke them out right from their half-open prickly casing. But sometimes I am too impatient, break the casing and take them out while they are still white. If I bring them to a warm place, they quickly turn brown.

I also never forget to stick a few conkers in my coat pocket, because it's said that your legs won't hurt if you do so. Not that I am superstitious, but I still do it, just in case. In fact, I have found out that extracts from horse chestnut have long been used in traditional medicine, especially for treating arthritis and varicose veins. So the legend may have a real basis after all. And even if it doesn't, at least I have something to fiddle with when I wait for the tram in the morning.

Apart from their name, horse chestnuts have nothing to do with the sweet chestnuts. In fact, when they are young and fresh, they contain a slightly poisonous alkaloid called aescin. However, deer, cattle, and horses of course, can eat them safely. Allegedly, that's where their name - horse chestnuts - comes from.

When I was a school kid, we used to collect conkers for animals in the zoos. We never played the game of conkers, but we made chestnut animals (kastanova zviratka). All you needed were chestnuts that were still soft and a few matches to connect the chestnut heads and bodies and to stick them inside like legs or antlers.

Chestnut trees are also beautiful in early summer when they are in bloom, with white flower spikes sticking at the end of their branches like candles. You can see them everywhere but they are especially popular in beer gardens, because their heavy branches offer agreeable shade during hot summer days. That's why so many Czech pubs are called Pod kaštany ("Under the chestnut trees").

Actually, you may see chestnuts in bloom here in Prague just now, in the beginning of autumn. Some years ago, the trees were afflicted with a parasite - horse chestnut leaf miner. The larvae of this moth feed on the leaves, which eventually wither and fall off. The cycle can be repeated several times in a season, causing the trees to bloom even when they are not supposed to.

No effective treatment has been discovered so far. So if you spot some conkers this autumn, remember to stick a few of them in your pocket. Just in case...