Curious Conkers - Unravelling the bonkers conkers myths

Alan Price/Gatehouse Studio

They cover the woodland floor during Autumn, vary in size and apparently ward off house spiders - but what are these curious conkers, and how many of the myths are true?

What is a conker?

Conkers are actually the seed of a Horse Chestnut tree. It's a pretty huge seed, but if you think of the size of the tree it is producing, it needs to be big!

Horse Chestnut trees (Aesculus hippocastanum) were widely planted after being introduced to Britain from Turkey in the late 16th Century, rapidly becoming naturalised in the UK. Today these trees are a common sight in many landscaped parks, gardens, streets and village greens.

Conker facts (or myths!)

House spider

Dr Malcolm Storey

Do conkers repel spiders?

Putting conkers around the house to deter spiders is an old wives’ tale and unfortunately there’s no evidence to suggest it really works. Spiders don’t eat conkers or lay eggs in them, so there is no reason why horse chestnut trees would bother to produce spider-repelling chemicals.

Have conkers been used as medicine?

It has been said that extracts from Horse Chestnuts have been used to treat malaria, frostbite and even ringworm. While the origin of this fact it unknown, conkers have been fed to horses as a stimulant, to make their coat shine and as a remedy for coughs, and also made into food for both horses and cattle. This is considered to be where the name of the tree comes from.

Conkers

Gillian Day

Did conkers help during the war?

Apparently the British government asked children to collect conkers during both world wars. They were used as a source of starch in the fermentation of a solvent that was used in the production of the explosive cordite, which was essential to armaments manufacture.

Conkers were chosen so that vital foodstuffs were not used purely for their starch, even though they did not produce large enough quantities compared to other sources.

Did you know...If you throw conkers into a bonfire, they’ll explode. This is due to a build-up of steam. If you pierce them, the steam is released more easily.
Carpet Moth

Do conkers deter moths in a wardrobe?

If moths are munching their way through your winter wardrobe then conkers could be the answer. The horse chestnut seeds contain a chemical called triterpenoid saponin that wards off pesky pests. Place fresh conkers in among your clothes and as they dry out they emit the moth-repellent.

How do you play conkers?

The first recorded game of conkers believed to have taken place on the Isle of Wight in 1848. Originally it was played with snail (conch) shells and then cobnuts, eventually being replaced with horse chestnut seeds by the 20th century.

If you don’t know the rules, they are quite simple. The conker is threaded onto a lace, with each player taking turns to strike the others until one gets smashed or destroyed.

Competitors take the game very seriously. Some people harden conkers by pickling them in vinegar and painting them with nail varnish – others bake them in the oven and some players even use last year’s crop.

Appreciate the conker

This is an extract from the wonderful book 'The Lost Words'.

It really is wonderful how such a beautiful thing such as a conker can only be created by a tree.

Lost Words Conker Poem

The Lost Words

Horse Chestnut Tree

Gillian Day

Learn more about Conkers and the Horse Chestnut Tree

A tall, broad tree of woodlands, roadsides and parks, the introduced horse chestnut is familiar to many of us the 'conker' producing tree - its shiny, brown seeds appearing in their spiny cases in autumn.

Learn more