The Horse Chestnut is a familiar tree of both town and country. Its distinctive leaves in summer and large sticky buds in winter make it one of the easiest trees to identify. It is best known for its seeds, or conkers. Despite its familiarity, it is not a British native tree. Its natural home is in the Pindus Mountains between Greece and Albania. First introduced to Britain in 1616, the Horse Chestnut became a popular choice for the landed gentry to plant on their country estates due to its quick growth, strong shape and attractive flowers. It was not until the 19th Century that it was planted as an amenity tree in parks and along roads. Around Victorian times also, children started to use the seeds in the game of conkers, supposedly replacing snail shells and hazelnuts.
The tree’s name is sometimes said to come from the horseshoe-shaped scar left when the leaves fall off but it is more likely to derive from its historic use, especially in Turkey, for treating horses with breathing problems.
Today, Horse Chestnut trees are under attack. A tiny moth called the Horse Chestnut Leaf Miner (Cameraria ohridella), first recorded in Greece in the 1980s, has spread to Britain. The adult moth lays her eggs in the leaves of the Horse Chestnut in the early summer. The resulting tiny caterpillars live inside the leaf creating ‘tunnels’ or ‘mines’ as they feed. These initially give the leaf a spotty appearance but over time cause it to turn brown prematurely. Despite the unsightly appearance, so far the moth doesn’t seem to be doing any lasting damage.
Unfortunately the bacteria that causes Bleeding Canker Disease in Horse Chestnuts is much more damaging. Although known since the 1970s, there has been a sharp rise in recent years.
If you would like to find out more about the County Museum’s plant collection email the Keeper of Natural History at the museum. If you would like to learn more about Buckinghamshire’s trees contact the Bucks Tree Club, their website is linked below.