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Familiar for its nuts, called conkers, horse chestnut is a beautiful introduced ornamental tree. It also has significant medicinal uses, particularly for supporting weakened veins, as in varicose veins, hemorrhoids, and capillary fragility. It is used for two Bach Flower Essences and in commerical quantities for allopathic and homeopathic remedies for irregularities of the veins. It also has some surprising other uses.

Hippocastanaceae Horse chestnut family

Description: A tall tree, up to 130 ft, with palmate leaves in spring and huge candelabras of white- pink flowers in summer, followed by conkers in fall.

Habitat: Gardens, parks, and roadsides.

Distribution: Native to Asia and south-east Europe, but widespread as a planted and naturalized species in western Europe and in eastern North America.

Related species: The red horse chestnut (A. carnea) is used as a flower essence. The North American buckeyes (Aesculus sp.) are related, but the sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa) is not.

Parts used: Conkers, collected in fall; leaves in spring.

A shapely tree, with glossy brown sticky buds in winter, lime green hand-shaped leaves in spring, then soft and frothy Folies-Bergere-like pink and white flowers in summer, and hard spherical auburn nuts, conkers, in fall - no wonder the all-season beauty of horse chestnut was such a hit when the tree was introduced into England in the early

At first a tree of kings and owners of great estates, it later came to belong to everybody as Britain's municipal tree of choice, planted ornamentally in every avenue and park, in every Chestnut Villas of every Victorian city. Horse chestnut trees are mainly admired for their looks - the wood is soft and spongy, poor for carpentry or building.

1600s.

The tree's scientific and popular names may derive from its use in

Turkey, one of the countries of origin of the first specimens to reach Western Europe. The Turks mixed flour from the conkers with oats to improve the breathing of brokenwinded horses.

Other plant historians suggest that "horse" is meant as a derogative comparison to the native and tasty sweet chestnut (which is unrelated botanically). Horse chestnut conkers do contain a complex bitter chemical, escin (aescin in UK spelling), as the plant's active principle, and this is said to be toxic to humans in very large quantities.

The tree has surprisingly varied uses. The bark was an emergency quinine substitute for malaria and other fevers. The flower buds once made an ersatz flavoring for beer. Conkers produce a good soapy lather for shampoo and to clean clothes, stop mold, and repel clothes moths.

[Aescin, found in conkers] ... reduces leak- age and is used in the treatment of oedema (lower leg swelling) and has proved to be as effective as com- pression stockings. It strengthens and tones the blood vessels and is becoming very important in the treat- ment of varicose veins and chronic venous insufficiency (CVI)... Haemorrhoids respond well too...

And, little known today, conkers were used for explosives during the First World War. With other sources of acetone unavailable, British children collected 3,000 tons of conkers secretly in summer 1917 (their schools received a certificate). The research chemist seconded to the government's chestnuts plan, Chaim Weizman, then in Manchester, would become first president of Israel in 1948.

Other new "explosive" chestnut issues include worries about a leaf miner moth damaging (but not killing) mature trees, and the charge that children are at risk while playing with conkers if they chew or eat them. Sadly, the game is now banned in some English schools, but it would need concerted force-feeding to reach toxic levels of escin, and the bitter taste is already off-putting to children.

Use horse chestnut for... Horse chestnut is a leading herbal treatment for weakened veins, including varicose veins, hemorrhoids, acne rosacea, and chronic venous insufficiency (CVI). It has an unusual capacity to strengthen small blood vessel walls by reducing the size and number of the pores; it also works well on wrinkles by tightening the skin (an alternative to Botox, perhaps?), and for fluid retention or edema.

Horse chestnut is taken both internally as a tincture and externally as a cream, oil, or lotion. Internal use should be in small doses and under the supervision of an herbalist, in case of stomach irritation.

Commercially, it is grown for horse chestnut seed extract (HCSE) and a homeopathic remedy. It also makes two Bach Flower Essences, namely chestnut bud and white chestnut.

Aesculus has unique action on the vessels of the circulatory system. The herb appears to increase the elasticity and tone of the veins while decreasing vein permeability. - Hoffmann (2003)

Conker tincture

Collect the conkers as soon as they drop to the ground in early fall. They will usually come out of their green spiky husks by themselves. While fresh, they are quite soft, but they soon harden and are much more troublesome to cut. Use a serrated knife and be careful in chopping them up, as they can skid out from under the knife blade.

Put the chopped conkers in a jar and pour in enough vodka to cover them. Leave in a dark cupboard for a month, shaking every few days. It is normal for the alcohol to extract a milky sediment from the seeds. Strain and bottle, or use to make the lotion below.

Internal use: 5 drops in water twice a day, or as recommended by your herbalist.

Horse chestnut leaf oil

Pick leaves in spring before the flowers open. Chop them up and put them in a jar large enough to hold them. Fill the jar with extra virgin olive oil. Stir to remove any air bubbles, and top up with more oil if necessary. Put on a sunny windowsill to infuse for a month, then strain off the oil into a jug. Allow this to settle for half an hour. Carefully pour the oil into jars, leaving any watery sediment behind at the bottom of the jug. Apply directly to the skin or use to make the lotion below.

Horse chestnut lotion

Chill equal amounts of conker tincture, horse chestnut leaf oil, and castor oil in the fridge overnight, then blend until creamy. Bottle. Shake well before use, as it may separate on standing. Apply twice a day.

Conker tincture

• varicose veins

• fragile capillaries

Horse chestnut leaf oil

• varicose veins

• fragile capillaries

Horse chestnut lotion

• varicose veins

• fragile capillaries

Cautions: May cause digestive irritation when taken internally. If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, or using blood-thinning medication, only take horse chestnut under professional supervision.

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