Horse Chestnuts

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The white flowers of this western Asia native tree contrast well against the deep green leaves.

On a blustery day in November I pulled out my heavy wool coat and found a horse chestnut in the pocket. Rather, I rediscovered the horse chestnut, for it had been in my pocket since the previous autumn, a memento from a business trip to Northern Italy. A winter’s worth of rolling the nut absent-mindedly between my fingers had inadvertently burnished it with the oils from my hand, rendering it smooth as a worry stone, lustrous as melted bittersweet chocolate.

A vacation with my relatives in their quiet mountain village outside Torino had brought me to Italy, but I also planned to meet with a literary agent in Milan, two hours away by train. Over coffee and grappa with cousins and friends the afternoon before the meeting, I expressed my trepidation. My Italian, I worried, wasn’t fluent enough to carry out the business at hand. My wardrobe, my makeup, my hairstyle, all lacked the artistic flair and urban edginess that the Milanese place at such a premium. And at the small publishing house where I worked in Vermont, we had taken to calling the woman with whom I was to meet La Dragona for her volatility. With one fiery rant she might well snuff me out completely. How could I ever hope to make a good impression on the Dragon Lady?

The answer, I was told, was simple. Alongside the road stood a magnificent ippocastano, a horse chestnut tree, which had recently started dropping its nuts. I had only to stop there and find a firm, sound horse chestnut for my pocket. When I went to Milan it would bring me good luck.

Maybe not good luck in general, my cousin Caterina told me. But her mother had always kept three horse chestnuts in her purse during the winter to ward off colds. I might as well give it a try, she said; at the very least, I wouldn’t catch cold on the way to Milan.

All this came as news to me. I had always considered these tough, round nuts as little more than garden debris–something to rake up and dispense with in the autumn, or something to fear being pelted by as they fell. I’d once heard of a British children’s game of conkers, whereby players pierce a hole through a nut with a needle and thread it with a long piece of twine to make a “conker.” They take turns swinging at each other’s conker, aiming to break it, and the winner–the “conker-er”–is the player who survives without having his own conker smashed in two. This is entertainment of the highest order for eight-year-old boys. But I had been courting suggestions, and it seemed foolish not to avail myself of a talisman so easily obtained. So after coffee I walked down the road to the ippocastano. The next morning, with a horse chestnut in my pocket, I set out for Milan.

Although I had yet to discover the horse chestnut’s many merits, I knew enough even then to distinguish it, Aesculus hippocastanum, from the delicious Castanea sativa of roasting-on-an-open-fire fame. Native to western Asia, the horse chestnut tree is an elegant ornamental with deep green leaves, long and leathery, which grow in radiant clusters like outstretched fingers. Ten-inch pyramidal racemes of white flowers, spotted red and yellow at the base, cover the tree like candelabra each spring, and they produce brown, spiny seed capsules each fall that burst upon dropping to the ground, revealing two to three brown, shiny nuts. The tree grows rapidly to a height of fifty feet or more, even under the inhospitable conditions often found in urban environments, with their tired soils, poor drainage, and unclean air. Consequently, the horse chestnut tree had been planted throughout Europe by the sixteenth century, lending shade and a stately air to many city boulevards and formal gardens. Soon after, the tree made its way to North America with the colonists, where it propagated readily from seed, flourishing and naturalizing alongside several indigenous New World species.

Not just a nut

The horse chestnut’s names, both common and botanical, allude to its resemblance to the sweet chestnut, although the two are not even remotely related. The modifiers “horse” and “ippo” trace back to the nut’s traditional use by the early Turks as a cough remedy for winded horses. American species go by the nickname Buckeye, because the gray scar at the base of each shiny round kernel reminded settlers of the eye of a deer. Finally, the genus name Aesculus comes from the Latin “esca” meaning food, oddly enough, since the horse chestnut is quite poisonous, unless you are a squirrel or a deer. Honeybees won’t even touch the flowers. One of the tree’s not-too-distant cousins is Paullinia pinnata, which is among the deadly ingredients used by South American natives in their famous curare poison arrows.

In humans, eating the raw nuts causes a malady that the Food and Drug Administration refers to as “horse chestnut poisoning.” The offending agent is a glucoside called esculin that produces altogether unpleasant symptoms including nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and headache, with extreme cases leading to circulatory and respiratory failure, and even death. Fortunately, compounds called tannins in the nuts make them unbearably bitter, so you never hear of anyone feasting to death on raw horse chestnuts.

Native Americans made ingenious use of the toxic nuts for fishing. They sprinkled ground kernels into pools of water, stunning the fish with the toxins that entered directly into the bloodstream through their gills and caused the fish to float to the water’s surface for easy harvest. The offending chemical was strong enough to stun the fish but had no ill affects on the Natives (in small enough dosage) as they consumed the fish. They also discovered a laborious process of roasting and repeated soakings in water that leached out the toxins and bitter tannins, rendering the nuts edible. European farmers employed a similar technique, boiling the nuts in potash. But they deemed the finished product suitable only as fodder for livestock and would not deign to eat it themselves.

Pockets full of uses

Though the horse chestnut never earned renown as a food, it has established itself as a multipurpose nut. High in compounds called saponins, which dissolve in water to create a rich lather and which give soaps and shampoos their characteristic suds, horse chestnuts were prized by French and Swiss housewives for washing woolens. Nineteenth-century physicians in Europe and America prescribed the powdered nuts as therapeutic snuff to clear blocked sinuses–a forceful whiff caused violent sneezing. Victorian gentlefolk took a decoction of the nuts to soothe rheumatism and neuralgia. They applied horse chestnut poultices to skin ulcers and bruises and used a salve prepared with lard as a soothing balm for varicose veins and hemorrhoids. Peasants touted a tea made from the bark of the horse chestnut tree as an effective treatment for malaria, though there is no record that it actually worked.

Nineteenth-century common folk believed so mightily in the curative powers of the horse chestnut that they claimed merely walking around with a nut in one’s pocket sufficed to ward off these ills and possibly many others. Doctors of the period did little to discourage such superstitions.

And so the horse chestnut became a token of good fortune, an amulet to keep in the pocket or purse at all times should the need for a bit of supernatural assistance suddenly arise. It could well serve a suitor, for example, upon proposing to his beloved. Or a tongue-tied foreigner during an encounter with a fire-breathing literary agent.

A few of the horse chestnut’s traditional uses have stood up to scientific scrutiny. The seeds contain a compound called aescin (sometimes spelled escin) that seems to promote the strength and tone of the veins. Researchers have developed nontoxic horse chestnut seed extracts with standardized levels of aescin, and clinical trials have shown these extracts to significantly alleviate the swelling, itching, and pain of varicose veins and hemorrhoids. A 1996 study in The Lancet found horse chestnut seed extract to work as well or better than compression stockings in relieving the symptoms of a syndrome known as chronic venous insufficiency. And unlike compression stockings, horse chestnut seed extract is easy to use. Even better, standardized oral preparations are now available that have had the toxins removed.

Researchers aren’t yet exactly sure how aescin works, but it appears to reduce the rate at which fluid leaks from irritated capillaries. Aescin also has anti-inflammatory properties, making it effective in reducing the swelling that follows sprains and bruises. Topical horse chestnut creams are prescribed in Europe for treating sports-related injuries.

Contemporary Italian herbalists praise the horse chestnut for cosmetic reasons as well. To restore the glow to a blotchy, red complexion, I read in the Italian cooking magazine Cucina Italiana, herbalist Lucia Angiolini advises her patients to use a horse chestnut facial mask: Peel and pulverize three boiled horse chestnuts and mix them with yogurt to obtain a paste. Apply the cream liberally to the face, leave to dry for twenty minutes, and then rinse with rosewater. And for an anti-cellulite bath, she recommends boiling a dozen horse chestnuts until tender, adding them to the bathwater and soaking the limbs for twenty minutes.

I found a hot bath with horse chestnuts unquestionably therapeutic after my trip to Milan, though I can’t vouch for what it did for my cellulite. As for my dreaded appointment, La Dragona unexpectedly found herself with a more pressing engagement and sent her assistant to meet with me in her stead. A tiny woman, quick to smile, she confided her great relief that I spoke Italian, as her English was rusty. She reported most favorably back to the Dragon Lady. I couldn’t believe my luck. Or maybe it was the horse chestnut in my pocket.

Teresa Lust writes from her home in New Hampshire. She has written Pass the Polenta: and Other Writings from the Kitchen (Ballantine Books, 1999) and is currently working on a collection of essays about her culinary excursions in Italy.