The hardest conker usually wins.
Methods for hardening your conker include soaking or boiling it in vinegar, baking it or painting it with varnish. Though there are many methods to firm up your conker, none is advised in this column, since doing so is considered cheating. So to be true, one must keep his or her conker pure, hardening it only with age.
Conkers are the nut-like seeds of the horse-chestnut tree which are used in a traditional British game of the same name. The game is played after collecting conkers once they fall from the tree, attaching them to a string hanging from a stick, and taking turns hitting your partner’s conker until it breaks. The player that ends up with the broken conker wins the game.
In the British Junior Conkers Championship games, bringing your own conker is forbidden, and this rule has caused some unhappiness among the players. A group opposed to the rule, who dubbed their efforts the Campaign for Real Conkers, claimed that this overregulation was causing a drop in interest in the game.
If you want to play conkers, you will have to wait until the fall. Conkers fall off of the horse-chestnut tree in September or October. But now, while the tree is in full bloom, is the time to identify horse-chestnut trees so you are ready to beat the competition to collect the best conkers.
There are a few of these non-native trees found on the Island and they are boldly flowering right now. In Vineyard Haven, on Cromwell Lane (off Main street) is a splendid specimen. Another beauty is found in West Tisbury center. To identify this large tree, look for the palmate leaves (with seven leaflets) that are up to 10 inches across. Their flowers are impressive, too, with a big panicle (up to one foot) of white flowers with yellow and red colors at the flower’s base.
Horse-chestnuts are not only famed for their fun, they are also coveted for their cures. One of the active chemical constituents found in the seeds and leaves of the tree is the healing compound aescin. A concentrated extract is made and used medicinally to treat varicose veins, hemorrhoids and edema by thinning blood and strengthening blood vessel walls.
In the case of horse-chestnut, don’t try to self-medicate. In addition to the beneficial compounds, this plant also contains a toxic one that is poisonous to humans and horses. Squirrel and deer, however, can go nuts over this tree, because they can render the compound in question harmless. The rest of us should refrain from crunching a conker at all costs.
Who would have thought that these nuts could be so dangerous? In more ways than one, they are the cause of some concern. Teachers and principals in England aren’t especially worried about the poison within their leaves, bark and nuts; they are alarmed by the potency punch that the conker itself can pack. Some schools in England banned the playing of conkers altogether, while others insisted that players wear goggles to prevent shards of cracking conkers from getting in the students’ eyes.
The game is on the decline in many places, which isn’t too surprising. With all of the rules, potential for litigation and infighting among its proponents and opponents, it is no wonder that the game’s players are simply too conked out to continue.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.