Question: What are these mad people doing?
Answer: Taking part in the World Conker Championships of course!
I really had not expected to encounter a chestnut tree at Leu Gardens and I would not have seen it, if a big glossy brown "conker" had not landed at my feet a couple of days ago.
But of course this is not really a chestnut but one of the Buckeyes. The confusion arises because it looks like our "horse chestnut", but that isn't a real chestnut either. Both are from the Aesculus family whereas the true chestnuts are Castanea.
I am not sure if this is a Yellow or Red Buckeye but the leathery husk of the nut is smooth, not like our spiny horse chestnut. I had not considered the name before but of course, it is obvious that the beautiful brown seed is like the liquid brown eye of a deer.
Donald Culross Peattie writes about the yellow buckeye thus.
" Country folk have named this tree for its big shiny brown seed which with the large pale scar upon it has looked to them like the eye of a deer. They are seeds pleasing to look at and satisfying to hold but there is a poison on them...yet with this bitter principle removed the very starchy seeds are both edible and nourishing The Indians roasted the nuts among hot stones thus loosening the shells, peeled and mashed them and then leached the meal with water for several days -. Thus there was left to them a highly nutritious meal. The presence of the poison however serves to make the seed useful in another way; bookbinders prefer above others a paste made of its starch since it is not eaten by the insect enemies of books.
This little tree growing near the lake at Leu has just a few "conkers". Are they called conkers here in the USA? Do they play conkers here? I haven't had chance to ask my American friends here yet.
Only last Sunday the World Conker Championship took place in Ashton near Oundle in the UK and for anyone who does not know, the object of this ancient ( well, 200 year old) game is to shatter your opponents conker with your own super-hero conker. There are rules, mostly about not hardening your conker in vinegar before the game, which is considered the height of cheating.
Here is some history from the World Conker Championship website. here
The game of conkers probably evolved from a game called ‘conquerors’, which was originally played with snail (conch) shells. A variant of the game was later played with hazelnuts, on strings. By the 20th century these earlier games had almost universally been replaced by the version we now know using horse chestnuts. There are, of course, many regional variations in the rules of the game and it has also been known by different names. In parts of the Midlands around Worcestershire it was known as ‘oblionker’ (pron. obly-onker) and play was accompanied by such rhymes as ‘Obli, obli, onker, my first conker (conquer)’. The word oblionker apparently being a meaningless invention to rhyme with the word conquer, which has by degrees become applied to the nut itself.
I have two buckeye conkers. Chris and I will be playing a needle match later. We will be starting the game with the throw of a dice. Whoever wins the toss will start the game loudly proclaiming
'Obli, obli oh, my first go.'
This will confirm all the worst suspicions of our neighbours about "the Brit couple".
Mine is of course soaking in vinegar as I type.