I love putting on a pair of wellies and going for a walk in the woods with the kids collecting conkers. As a child playing conkers in the school playground used to be the school ritual, we couldn't wait for the bell to go and, if you were lucky, you would find the ultimate winning conker that would at least be a 'sixer'. Rumours of how to prepare your conker were the playground gossip; heat on the radiator or in the oven, soaking in vinegar and once someone coated theirs in glue! All considered cheating, of course! Some believed a baked "cheeser' or a 'cheese wedge" as they were known, were better than a nice large round one!
The best thing about conkers is collecting them. However, you need to be careful if they are still in their spikey green shells and never pick them straight from the tree. We have a competition to see who can find the biggest or the smallest conker, whilst looking for the champion of champions we do our bit to help the horse chestnut trees survive, by kicking a few away from the tree, out of its shade, and gently step on them to pressing the conkers into the ground, kick some leaf-litter over them, so they have a chance of becoming a seedling.
Problems with moths?
Conkers could be the answer. The horse chestnut seeds (conkers) 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. I'm definitely trying this!
It has been said that if you place conkers in the corner of rooms, or on windowsills, this will deter spiders. Although conkers contain a noxious chemical, there remains no scientific proof this works! Unfortunately, if you are acrophobic (like me), we need to keep searching for the natural deterrent. I'm currently trying out peppermint oil mixed with dried lavender in a little sachet. I think it's working.
Horse Chestnut soap
Conkers have saponins which are soap-like chemicals that are sometimes added to shampoos and shower gels. It is thought that the Vikings, made their soap out of soaked, crushed up conkers… errrmm! I think we will give this homemade soap a miss!
Why are Horse Chestnuts called Horse Chestnuts?
To be honest, I don't actually know, I've heard of a few reasons, the chestnut part is clear, the seed is very much like the chestnuts from a sweet chestnut tree, but why 'horse'?
It is believed that horse chestnut is so named because its seeds were once used to treat ailments in horses. Aescin, can be extracted from conkers, and has anti-inflammatory effects and is an effective remedy for sprains and bruises for humans as well as horses.
When the leaves of the Horse Chestnut tree (Aesculus Hippocastanum) fall, the stalk breaks away from the twig it was attached too. As they detach, the stalk leaves a scar on the twig which is said to resemble the shape of a horseshoe perfectly. The scar is even complete with nail holes!
Before modern veterinary medicines, conkers used to be ground and fed to horses to relieve them of coughs. But conkers are poisonous to eat for most animals and definitely will make humans ill if eaten!
Either way, I'm sure you can agree the brown seeds (conkers) can be great fun for kids.
Playing with the kids
Our boys love playing conkers at home, and it's a lovely childhood memory. All you need are conkers, 25cm of string, or shoelace. As kids, we used to take them out of dads shoes! Then there was always the danger of putting the hole in the middle, usually utilising a skewer that was taken, or borrowed as I like to think, from mums' kitchen drawer! Every year there was always someone that pushed the skewer through the conker and nearly into their hand, so we keep the kids away for this part as we don't want to end up in A&E! Thread a conker onto a piece of string or shoelace; Tie a decent knot so the conker doesn't fall through otherwise the game could be over before you've started.
Choose who is striking first by flipping a coin or a quick game of rock, paper scissors. The first player holds out their stringed conker at arm's length, making sure they have hold of the string as firmly as possible (usually by wrapping the string around their hand), whilst keeping their conker as still as possible.
The other player, or striker, wraps their string around his hand in the same way, draws their conker back and tries to his opponent's conker with their conker. Simple!
Conker Rules – yes, there are rules!
If a player misses their opponent's conker, they are allowed up to two further goes.
If the strings tangle, the first player to call "strings" gets an extra shot.
If a striker hits their opponent's conker in such a way that it completes a whole circle after being hit – known as 'round the world' – the striker gets another go.
If a player drops his conker, or it is knocked out of his hand, the other player can shout 'stamps' and jump on it; but should its owner first cry 'no stamps' then the conker, hopefully, remains intact.
If you find the conker flying out of your hand somebody, somewhere, will shout scramble, and everybody will try and grab the conker. Whoever gets it first will win ownership of the conker, but not the string (especially if it is a shoelace – after all, the dad can't walk about in flip flops!).
The game continues in turns until one of the two conkers is destroyed.
Conker scoring for the dedicated conker players
Play continues until one conker becomes too damaged to continue. This could just as easily be the striking conker as the defender. Your conker then gains a point, never the user as the conkers are the champions.
When a conker breaks its first opponent, it becomes a one-er. When it breaks a second conker, it becomes atwo-er. Three wins make it a three-er, then four-er, fiver and the traditionally-significant sixer.
Scores are cumulative as well - if a twicer beats a sixer, it becomes a niner (it's score of two, plus the other conker's score of six, plus one for this win).
How ever you play, playing conkers is simple, easy and fun, kids love it, and the child in me loves it too.