In a nutshell

Monday 20 September 2010, 12:28

Martin Aaron Martin Aaron

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The weather has definitely got an autumnal feel to it at the moment but then again we are in autumn now so we shouldn't be too surprised as the nights start to draw in and the days feel just that little bit fresher.

As the leaves around us begin to change colour and float down from their perches, keep an eye out for the bright green, prickly fruits of the horse chestnut tree.

These wonderfully majestic trees are actually native to the Balkan states e.g. Greece, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina etc and all those other countries that we only ever really hear about in times of conflict or Eurovision.

The trees were first introduced to Britain during the 16th century - why I'm unsure, as the wood is of poor quality and not even particularly good to burn!

Horse chestnuts have suffered in Britain recently due to a combination of disease, drought and pest attack - resulting in the loss of thousands of trees particularly in England.

Conkers without their prickles by Eiona Roberts: Conkers by Eiona Roberts

We have approximately 11,000 trees in Wales currently so far fewer than our counterparts in England and Scotland.

The distinctive palmat leaves (i.e. the nerves diverge from a main point like fingers from the palm of your hand) usually have five or seven leaflets but you'll probably spot the distinctive, green, prickly cases strewn all over the forest floor long before you have to start identifying leaf shapes.

Conkers are poisonous to eat but you can eat the edible sweet chestnuts (unrelated to horse chestnuts) which are often roasted over hot coals in outdoor markets during the festive season - which I'll not mention in this blog for at least another two months!

Sweet chestnuts are similar in appearance to conkers (horse chestnuts) but have a pointed tip at the top of the nut. The leaf shape and prickly case are also completely different so you shouldn't have any problems identifying them, but if in doubt - don't eat.

School boys playing conkers: School boys playing conkers

No-one really knows where the word 'conker' came from but some believe it originates from the French word 'conque' meaning conch - as the game was originally played using snail shells.

Whatever its origin, the game of conkers has entertained school boys for centuries, long before hand held game consoles were invented.

Indeed, it's highly likely that youngsters today have no idea what to do with a conker so I've included a link to the World Conker Championships website for the official rules of engagement ;)

In a nutshell (pun intended!) you simply drill a thin hole through a conker, thread some string through and tie a knot at the bottom. You then take turns at hitting your opponent's conker until one of them shatters. Last conker standing, wins - simple.

There are a number of ways to make your prized conker last a bit longer - including soaking them in vinegar or baking in an oven (so they become rock hard) but I'm sure these techniques are frowned upon nowadays.

A grey squirrel with a conker. Image by Eiona Roberts: A grey squirrel with a conker in its mouth. Image by Eiona  Roberts

Aside from us humans; only squirrels and deer seem to bother with them - probably due to the poison (Aesculin) contained within them.

Squirrels tend to bury them but no-one is sure if this is done to help release some of the toxins, making them more palatable? Or as a back up plan for survival during harsh winters. I guess if you're a hungry squirrel, you'll eat anything!


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    Comment number 1.

    Is is true that you only hear about Greece in times of conflict or Eurovision? Then what on earth are all the British hordes doing in my country every summer? Then again where on earth are you living in? "Ladies and Gents, tonight I present the bright green, prickly fruits of the horse chestnut tree, the only actual reason why one would ever hear of...Greece." Thanks to the chestnuts...Damn these nuts are good!

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    Comment number 2.

    Just make sure it's the sweet chestnuts you're eating Frank! ;0

    I actually meant some of the 'other' Balkan states...

    But just to set the record straight - I think about Greece every time I pass through an automatic door and wonder how on earth they came up with the idea in the 1st century BC?

    Glad you're enjoying/reading the blog.

    What kind of wildlife do you see on a day to day basis in Greece then?


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