Today is Chestnut Sunday! For a relatively short time in the Victorian age, it would be a tradition for families to go to the parks and luxuriate among the horse chestnuts on the sunday before Ascension Day. And yes, luxuriate is the right word here. No tree has bigger leaves, bulkier, sweeter-smelling blooms, or a prouder stance than the horse chestnut. It’s a tree that decorates beautifully while being, like many other luxurious items, almost useless.
Every part of the horse chestnut is toxic- it is, after all, only vaguely related to the actual Castanea sativa- but its large seeds encased in beautiful pods are beautiful, shiny baubles of the richest, reddest brown. More than just beatiful, they’re the playpieces for a game of conkers; a popular game in England where you hit two “conkers” (think: conquerors) on strings together- the one that cracks is the losing piece.
The horse chestnut also played an important part in the two World Wars: the British government made a call to collect as many conkers as one could, and would pay for one to turn them in. Conkers contain acetone, a necessary ingredient for a number of weapons. But it also brought a modicum of peace: the horse chestnut in the garden of Keizersgracht 188 in the centre of Amsterdam was one of the only things Anne Frank could see from the attic window in the secret annex where she hid from persecution. She describes the tree often in her diary, and it seemed to give her some comfort. This tree may well be a luxury, but far from an unnecessary one. Go see one near you today and feel free to luxuriate.