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William Whetten Renwick designed and built the Summerhouse for the
Pleasant Day estate in the 1920s, four horse chestnut trees, Aesculus
hippocastanum, were planted around it to provide shade
during the hottest days of summer. The magnificent trees have graced
the grounds that would become Greenwood Gardens for nearly a century
and within the next few days, the buds on their panicles, commonly
referred to as “candles”, will flower, turning the trees into resplendent
Their handsome form—especially when in flower—and the deep shade they
provide have led to their widespread use along streets and in parks and
gardens throughout temperate climates. Horse chestnuts tolerate city
life extremes very well and feature prominently not only in the United
States but also define the boulevards of Paris and the beer gardens of
Bavaria. Of the four chestnuts shading the Summerhouse, two are the
species featuring clusters of single white flowers with yellow centers
that will change to amber then crimson. Botanists theorize that the
yellow is a “nectar signal” guiding pollinators to the youngest,
nectar-rich blossoms and once the flowers have been pollinated, the
flowers change color. Consequently, while the buds continue to open,
panicles will have flowers with both yellow and red centers. The other
two trees are the cultivar, 'Baumannii,' which produce sterile, double
flowers with red freckles that do not develop nuts. Chestnuts are hardy
trees but susceptible to a fungal disease known as leaf blotch.
Professional arborists can help control the problem.
Horse chestnuts have developed formidable defense mechanisms to protect
nuts or seeds known colloquially as “conkers” from being eaten by
wildlife and humans and thereby insure progeny. The large, shiny brown
conkers develop within a spiny coat that splits open as the seeds
ripen. Although eaten by various
animals, the conkers contain alkaloid saponins and glucosides that are
toxic to humans, dogs, and, ironically, horses. Horse chestnut conkers
are not the edible “chestnuts roasted over an open fire” during the
holidays or ground into a paste for deserts. Edible chestnuts come from
the unrelated American, European, Japanese, or Chinese species.
Native to Southeast Europe and the forests of the Balkan Peninsula,
horse chestnuts and the buckeye family to which they belong have a long
association with mankind. From time immemorial, members of the buckeye
family, Sapindaceae, have been recognized for both medicinal and
symbolic values. The Greek name Aesculus refers to
Aesculapius, the Roman god of medicine, and healing and hippocastanum
refers to early use of horse chestnut extract as a treatment for winded
or coughing horses. The name also refers to the resemblance of the nuts
to that of the unrelated American chestnut, Castanea dentata.
Conkers have long been associated with magical or curative powers. If
kept in one’s pockets, two conkers were said to prevent hemorrhoids and
rheumatism and three shiny conkers in a pocket meant money was
forthcoming. Over the centuries in Britain and Ireland, they have given
rise to a children’s game. When suspended by a string through a hole
drilled in the middle, the round brown nuts are used in playful conker
versus conker combat. Two players take turns striking at the conker of
his opponent—but not directly at that opponent—with his or her conker.
The game continues until the losing conker is smashed.
Horse chestnut flowers are the emblem for the City of Kiev, capital of
Ukraine. And one specific tree holds historic and symbolic importance
in Holland. As described in her diary written during the Nazi
occupation, Anne Frank regularly observed a venerable horse chestnut
growing in front of her Amsterdam home. One of the oldest horse
chestnuts in the city, this tree survived until blown over in an August
2010 storm. Seeds from the beloved tree were collected and sown, giving
rise to progeny which have been widely disseminated. Among the eleven
Anne Frank Trees sent to the United States, one was planted at the
United Nations and a second at the 9/11 Memorial in New York City.
on any photo to view it larger:
on Aesculus hippocastanum feature single
husks split open when the seeds have ripened.
flowers adorn the panicles of the cultivar 'Baumannii'.
spiked capsule can sometimes contain two seeds, or conkers.