Conkers are the glossy brown seeds that fall each autumn from horse chestnut trees. They have been beloved by generations of children in Britain who collect them to play the traditional schoolyard game of conkers. Read on to learn more about what conkers are, where they come from, and the many creative ways they can be used.
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What is a Conker?
A conker is the seed or fruit of the horse chestnut tree, scientific name Aesculus hippocastanum. The trees are native to the Balkan Peninsula but grow throughout temperate regions.
Horse chestnut trees flower in spring, producing upright clusters of white flowers with red spots. By autumn, the flowers have turned into prickly green seedpods. When ripe, these pods split open, dropping large, brown, conker seeds to the ground.
Conkers have a smooth, shiny brown shell called the pericarp. This protects the inner conker seed or kernel. When fresh, the kernel is white, starchy, and slightly sweet. As conkers dry over winter, the kernel shrinks and becomes inedible.
Why Are They Called Conkers?
The name conker likely comes from the British dialect word “conqueror.” This refers to the use of conkers in the children’s game of the same name, where players try to conquer their opponent’s conker.
Regional names for conkers include obblyonkers, cheggies, cheesers, and conquerors. The tree’s scientific name hippocastanum comes from the Greek words for horse and chestnut. This refers to the seed’s historical use to treat coughs and breathing issues in horses.
Where to Find Conkers
Conkers can be found underneath horse chestnut trees in early autumn as the seeds start to fall. Children often scout parks and schoolyards that have horse chestnut trees to collect the biggest and glossiest conkers for playing the game.
When collecting conkers, it’s important not to strip a tree bare. Only take 1-2 conkers per tree so there are plenty left for wildlife. Also avoid collecting from trees in protected areas.
The best conker crops tend to come every 2-3 years. Some years trees produce fewer or poorer quality conkers. Conker yield can be affected by late frosts, droughts, diseases, and moths that eat the flowers.
Can You Eat Conkers?
While conker seeds are mildly toxic when raw, they can be rendered edible through careful preparation. However, most people do not eat conkers.
After drying, boiling, and leaching, some of the toxins can be removed. The kernel can then be dried and ground into flour.
However, eating conkers is not recommended. Even with processing, they contain alkaloids and saponins that can cause nausea, diarrhea, and dizziness.
How to Play the Game of Conkers
Playing conkers has been a popular playground tradition in Britain since at least the mid-1800s. Two players hang conkers on strings and take turns striking each other’s conker. The conker left unbroken is the winner.
Rules of Conkers
- Each player threads one conker onto a shoelace or string, tying a large knot so it can’t slide off.
- Players take turns striking their opponent’s conker while holding their string at arm’s length.
- The first to crack their opponent’s conker wins.
- A conker gets 1 point for each opponent conker it smashes.
- If a player drops their conker during their turn, the other can shout “stamps!” and try to stomp on it for an instant win.
- The winning conker keeps playing until it gets smashed. The highest scoring conker is the overall champion.
- “Hardening” a conker by baking or soaking in vinegar makes it more durable. However, some tournaments ban hardened conkers.
- Striking with a swinging technique can impart more force than just hitting straight down.
- Hold the string about 2-5cm from the conker to transmit the most energy on impact.
- Aim to hit the opponent’s conker near the knot or on its side, rather than directly on top.
- Be prepared to dodge if the opponent’s conker swings back around after impact!
Other Fun Uses for Conkers
Beyond the traditional game, there are many other creative and artistic uses for these free natural treasures. Here are a few ideas:
- Conker Creatures – use googly eyes and mini pom poms to make cute conker characters like spiders, caterpillars, aliens and more.
- Conker Magnets – superglue a magnet onto one side so they can decorate fridges or magnetic boards.
- Conker Topiaries – glue clusters of conkers together into the shape of trees, animals or abstract sculptures.
- Conker Jewelry – make necklaces, bracelets or keychains by stringing conkers or incorporating them into resin jewelry.
- Dip conkers in paint and make print art by rolling them across paper or canvas. Try layering colors.
- Paint designs, spirals or faces directly onto conkers to make decorative ornaments. Seal with varnish.
- Stick rows of painted conkers onto card stock to make banners, garlands or book marks.
Natural Conker Crafts
- Make stamps by gluing conkers to lids or blocks of wood. Create printed wrapping paper or cards.
- Preserve them in glycerin inside glass jars to keep their glossy brown color all winter.
- Use clusters of conkers and twigs in autumn-themed centerpieces, wreaths or flower arrangements.
Growing Horse Chestnut Trees for Conkers
Want an endless conker supply? Consider planting your own horse chestnut tree. Here are some tips:
- Horse chestnuts prefer sunny, open areas with deep, loamy soil. Provide plenty of space, as trees can reach over 35m tall.
- Start with young saplings in early spring. Water regularly as the tree establishes.
- Most varieties take 10-20 years to begin fruiting. Be patient for your first conker crop.
- Pick up fallen conkers promptly in autumn and store them in mesh bags to prevent mold and drying.
- Rotate your stored supply to ensure pristine conkers for playing each season. Share any extras with neighborhood children!
The Conker Championship: Britain’s Conker Obsession
The British passion for conkers culminates in an annual World Conker Championship held each October in the village of Ashton, Northamptonshire.
Dating back to 1965, this quirky tournament draws hundreds of competitors each year. They bring their most seasoned conkers to compete for the title of conker champion.
The serious competitors use tactics like pickling and baking to harden their conkers. However, there are also children’s contests for unmodified conkers.
The excitement builds through the knock-out rounds to crown the winner – who gets to keep the ceremonial brass conker encased in a velvet pouch until next year’s tournament.
Will you be the next conker champ?
The Horse Chestnut Tree: An Ornamental Giant
While conkers may be its most famous progeny, the horse chestnut tree itself is a stately ornamental plant. Here’s some background on this large deciduous tree:
- Grows to 35m tall with a broad, rounded crown that provides deep shade.
- Leaves are made of 5-7 leaflets joined to a central stem. They turn yellow in autumn.
- Flowers bloom in springtime, with clusters of white blossoms marked with pink and yellow spots.
- Twigs and shoots are sticky with buds covered in a glossy resin that protects them from cold winters.
- Native to the Balkan Peninsula and parts of Greece.
- Introduced in Europe in the 1500s as an ornamental tree.
- First planted in Britain in the early 1600s at parks and estates.
- Primarily used for visual appeal in parks, yards, and avenue plantings.
- Wood is pale brown and easily carved. Used occasionally for furniture, barrels, and wood pulp.
- All parts are mildly toxic, limiting medicinal uses. Extracts were once used in shampoos.
- Conkers from horse chestnuts are collected for children’s games and crafts.
Fun Conker Facts
- Conkers were traditionally used to repel spiders and moths. People would hang them by doorways or keep them in drawers to deter the pests.
- In WWII Britain, school children were encouraged to collect conkers as a source of starch for industry.
- The toxins in conkers may help repel deer and moose from horse chestnut trees. Unfortunately these chemicals are toxic to other animals too if ingested.
- Horse chestnut trees can live for 300 years or more. Some of Britain’s oldest specimens were planted in the 17th century.
- Greatest risk to horse chestnuts is leaf miner moth caterpillars. They tunnel inside leaves and can severely weaken the trees.
- Conkers with rare spiral markings are considered good luck charms by some children. However they don’t confer any in-game advantage.
The conker is a symbol of autumn and childhood in Britain. Playing conkers and collecting the shiny brown seeds has captivated generations of school children. Beyond just a nostalgic game, creative conker crafts and the majestic horse chestnut trees broaden their appeal.
As the leaves turn golden and the prickly pods split open, keep your eyes peeled for these special natural treasures. Make some timeless memories playing conkers with your friends or get crafty with conker art projects. Just be sure not to take too many and leave plenty for wildlife and future children to enjoy.
Frequently Asked Questions About Conkers
What are some other names for conkers?
Conkers are known by many regional British names including obblyonkers, cheggies, cheesers, conkerberries and conkerers.
Do conkers have any medicinal uses?
Traditionally horse chestnut seeds were used in folk medicine, but they are mildly toxic. Some evidence shows conker extracts may help with minor venous insufficiency, but medicinal use is not recommended.
Where does the name horse chestnut come from?
Despite their name, horse chestnuts are not related to edible sweet chestnuts. They were traditionally fed to horses to relieve coughs, hence the name “horse” chestnut.
How can you tell a horse chestnut tree from a buckeye tree?
Buckeye trees closely resemble horse chestnuts but are native to North America. Buckeye trees have rounded, palmate leaves whereas horse chestnuts have pointed, serrated leaves.
Are conkers safe for animals?
No. Conkers and horse chestnuts contain alkaloid and saponin compounds that are toxic to dogs, cats, horses and livestock. Pets should not be allowed to eat fallen conkers.
How do you win at conkers?
To win, you must strike and break your opponent’s conker while your conker remains intact. Hardening conkers by baking or pickling makes them more durable. Use swinging strikes for maximum smashing power!
Why do conkers have points on one end?
The spiky end of a fresh conker attached it inside the seed pod. As it dries over winter, the conker shrinks leaving the point. Older conkers tend to have smoother, more rounded ends.
Can you eat horse chestnuts?
While not completely inedible, raw horse chestnuts contain toxic compounds and are not considered food. After much processing to leach toxins, some have rendered the nuts edible but they’re mainly just used for games.
Do all horse chestnut trees produce conkers?
No. Only European horse chestnut trees (Aesculus hippocastanum) produce the large, glossy brown conkers used for games. Other chestnut varieties have inedible or unpalatable seeds.
Why do conkers leave brown stains?
Conkers contain high levels of tannins and saponins that can stain skin, clothes and surfaces brown. Stains fade over time but are difficult to completely remove. Wear gloves when playing conkers or doing crafts.