Notes from the Apothecary

Notes from the Apothecary: Horse Chestnut

Conkers! That was always the main appeal for me. This grand, stately tree with its leaves like great hands, giving shade from the summer heat, and shelter on a rainy day, and all we wanted to do was wait until the conkers were falling. We would string them up and smash them together, revelling in this annual autumn battle.

I still collect conkers, but they don’t get strung up any more. Rather, they sit on altars, usually at north, as a reminder of the changing season and that great things start small. I have one in my pocket right now, and feeling its smooth, solid roundness between my fingers is very reassuring.

There is, as implied, so much more to this tree than its iconic seed, as you will find out below.



Image credit: Ninjatacoshell via Wikimedia.org

The Kitchen Garden

Herein lies the only problem with horse chestnuts: the fruit is not edible. Unlike sweet chestnuts, widely available during the upcoming holiday season, the horse chestnut is poisonous. The picture here shows three sweet chestnuts on the left, and two horse chestnuts on the right. Do note the difference, as horse chestnuts are poisonous. Even most wild animals won’t eat them. If in doubt, just don’t eat it. Please!



Image credit: Michigan State University msu.edu

The Apothecary

Currently, research is being done into using extracts of conkers to help sufferers of chronic venous insufficiency, which is where the veins cannot pump enough blood back to the heart. The same extract is also known for its anti-inflammatory properties and a few other health benefits. It’s important to remember that it is only a particular extract that is noted to have these benefits, and that eating the whole chestnut will make you very poorly indeed!

Bach Herbal sells a white chestnut remedy, made with the flowers of the tree. It is used for repressing or getting rid of unwanted thoughts, particularly those thoughts that go around and around in your head. The remedy is supposed to help you think straight, and set your thoughts in order.

There is also a remedy made from the young leaf buds, which is to help those that do not learn from their mistakes. The remedy is supposed to help you pause and learn from your experiences, and not move on to the next experience too quickly.

Other Uses

Horse chestnut wood is not considered a strong timber, but it is pale with a very fine texture, which means wonderful carvings can be made from it. It may be ideal to make a wand from, but perhaps not strong enough for a staff or stave. You could also make runes from slices of a horse chestnut branch, as the symbols would be easy to carve into the wood, and if you were burning the symbols into the runes, the burnt marks would stand out really well against the pale wood.

The Witch’s Kitchen

I remember reading a lovely children’s tale when I was little, where the protagonist makes a wish whilst holding a small branch of horse chestnut, and places it in a drawer for a month. When she comes back to the drawer, the branch has moved by itself, which means her wish is going to come true.

The ‘horsiness’ of the horse chestnut refers to the scar left when a leaf breaks away or falls from the branch, which looks like a tiny horseshoe. One can use this association with horses to link the tree to Epona, the great mare, a goddess widely associated with equine beasts.

Still presuming this association with horses, we could also say this tree represents Macha, who is also connected with horses, particularly grey horses. It is worth noting that Macha is a very complex goddess and figure in Celtic mythology, and not all her iterations are connected to horses, so use this connection wisely and only as needed.

In hoodoo, conkers or ‘buckeye nuts’ are carried in a man’s pants pockets to increase his sexual prowess, or luck with sexual encounters. They are also used in mojo bags to help with or ward off arthritis, rheumatism and migraines, which may be ties back to the anti-inflammatory properties we discussed before.

In other folklore snippets, the conker is used as part of a good luck charm, to stave off chills, and even to ward against hemorrhoids!

For me, the conker will always be a symbol of the fall; the ultimate note that although summer has left us, here are these beautiful, glossy gifts that will one day become leafy, graceful trees.

Home and Hearth

Chestnuts take many years to mature, and are a great symbol of patience and ‘all good things come to those who wait’.

If you are struggling with things not moving on as fast as you would like, and have no way to change this, you can instead try and change your mindset.

Find two horse chestnut seeds, as big and glossy as you can. Try not to pick seeds that have been partially eaten or are rotten. They should be left to return to the ground and become part of the earth again.

Find a safe space, where you won’t be disturbed. Light a candle if possible, and focus on the flame while you relax your breathing. Once you are relaxed, hold one of your conkers in each hand. Focus on the smooth, wooden texture. Focus on how solid and unchanging they seem. Realise how small they are, that each one can fit neatly in your palm.

Now picture a horse chestnut tree in your mind (here is an image to help you). Think about how big this tree is. How majestic. How powerful, bending in strong winds but never breaking, always growing.

Realise that this enormous tree came from something identical to one of the little conkers you hold in your hand. Meditate on how everything happens in its own time, and that the horse chestnut is proof that, with persistence, goals will be achieved.

After your meditation, relax, drink some water and eat some food to ground out.



Image credit: Sannse via Wikimedia.org

I Never Knew…

In some countries, horse chestnuts are actually used as food for horses!

Mabh Savage is the author of A Modern Celt: Seeking the Ancestors and Pagan Portals: Celtic Witchcraft.