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A load of old chestnuts

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Sally Nex Sally Nex | 08:03 UK time, Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Conkers being stringed for the World Record attempt at Wisley (c) Jon Enoch

Right! Conkers stringed and at the ready!

RHS Garden Wisley may soon be able to add an entry in the Guinness Book of Records to their achievements after breaking the world record for the most people playing conkers at the same time this weekend (you can watch the whole thing here: much fun was clearly had by all).

The previous record, 197 matches played by 394 people, was set by the girls of Redland High in Bristol. An eyewatering 1,600 conkers and 502 matches later, Wisley thinks it's got it in the bag - though it'll need verifying before it's official.

So come on then, 'fess up: what was (or, indeed, is) your best conker?

All 502 conker matches under way at RHS Wisley (c) Jon Enoch



Mine, remembered with much fondness and not a little pride, was a thirty-er. Yes, you heard right. For three years I brought it to the playground as the undisputed school champion until some whippersnapper three-er clobbered it to smithereens. I still think skulduggery was afoot: baked, I reckon, or maybe soaked in vinegar.

The winner of the 2010 World Conker Championships would never have stooped so low. Veteran conker-player Ray Kellock attributed his victory to a combination of 'kinetic and potential energy'.

A sad sign of the times though: the organisers had to appeal for help to find decent-sized conkers.

Our conker trees are under threat as never before. There are two culprits: Leaf miner is a tiny caterpillar which burrows into the leaves and turns them autumnal before their time, causing trees to produce smaller, more brittle conkers. But that is as nothing compared to bleeding canker: it's already claimed Anne Frank's horse chestnut tree in Amsterdam and there are now whispers that horse chestnuts may go the same way as elms if it can't be stopped.

Fortunately the research arm of the Forestry Commission is hard at work finding a solution, and there are various other potential cures in the system. Let's hope one of them comes up with the goods before it's too late.

Horse chestnut tree



You do need a lot of space to grow your own conkers: a mature horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) is a magnificent tree, with a height and spread of around 25m, so not one for a small garden (or even a medium-sized one).

If you haven't got a field to spare, though, there are alternatives:

Indian Horse Chestnut (A. indica) is half the height at around 12m tall, and has some resistance to bleeding canker

A. x neglecta 'Erythroblastos' is an exquisitely beautiful small tree at 12m: the leaves turn from apricot to lime green to bronze through the season. I guarantee you will lose your heart to it.

And if you're really short of space, the American bottlebrush buckeye (A. parviflora) at 5m tall by 3m wide almost qualifies as a large shrub. It's a bit of a spreader, so best kept in check with some judicious pruning.

Whichever you choose, you're in for a treat: all members of the family share gorgeous palmate leaves and great frothy spires of flowers. And as for the conkers: if anyone knows the secret technique that might have done for my thirty-er, I'd like to hear about it.

Sally Nex is a garden writer and blogger and part of the BBC Gardening team.


  • Comment number 1.

    I would have to dispute your claim that Aesculus indica is a smaller tree, I can remember gathering friut for propagation from under such a tree which was huge (100+ ft), near Windsor. A.x carnea is smaller, but much depends on the quality of soil that they grow in. A. parviflora flowers too late in the year to set seed (no conkers), unless the weather is exceptional. My reckoning is to give this genus a miss for the time being, so the pests find less hosts? The sweet chestnut is an exciting tree with a super textured bark in maturity, good autumn colour and edible fruit.

  • Comment number 2.

    Hello hereisabee: you're quite right to say conditions dictate what size a tree grows to. But age is another factor: 'dwarf' conifers are notorious for not stopping after they've reached their advertised 5ft or so, and heading skywards to become anything but dwarf.

    So if you leave an A. indica in the ground for long enough it may well reach the same size as A. hippocastanum: but the point is it grows far slower and so is a better choice for a smaller garden. And you're right about A. parviflora not setting conkers - but it is stunning anyway for the leaves and flowers.

    I love sweet chestnuts too - but I think it would be a terrible shame to give up on the whole genus Aesculus as a lost cause - especially as our hedgerows and countryside would never look the same again. And whatever the issues over its size - A. indica is at least partially resistant to the disease. So maybe it would be better to argue that we should switch to those cultivars instead.

  • Comment number 3.

    Toby planted a sweet chestnut on yesterdays GW, although not as a replacement Aesculus. I suspect there is some gender at work here, one side wanting to conserve and restore. The other side 'turning the page' and looking forward. Viewing some Leylandii conifers the other day which were like trolls crushing a tiny garden, it is important to plant the right tree in the first place. You must remember that by the time the height of the tree becomes an issue, in a conservation area the tree will have some protection and may remain to grow taller, or be a financial liability requiring expensive tree surgery?


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