Kew's Indian horse chestnuts looking splendid
Along the Little Broad Walk which runs from Main Gate, Aesculus indica 'Sydney Pearce' is flourishing.
16 Jun 2010
Indian horse chestnut (Aesculus indica) outside the Nash Conservatory (Image: Nicola Merrett, RBG Kew)
A particularly good flowering form of Aesculus indica, the tree was selected by Sydney Pearce, the Assistant Curator of the Arboretum, in 1935. Three seedlings were transplanted at that time, and three more young trees of wild origin have been added since, ensuring a wonderful flowering display in June.
With luscious bright green spring leaves, the large panicles of white, yellow and pink appear about six weeks later than other horse chestnuts. As a result they are popular park and avenue trees as they extend the flowering season. There is also a practical use for this late flowering, namely to bees. The insect-pollinated flowers of the Indian horse chestnut appear during a relatively barren period between the spring and summer blooms of other shrubs and trees.
Aesculus indica flowers (Image: Nicola Merrett, RBG Kew)
A native of the Himalayas, Aesculus indica was introduced to Britain in 1851 and can grow to about 20 m in height. This is significantly smaller than Aesculus hippocastanum and can also be differentiated by its smooth, grey-green bark, as opposed to the red-brown bark of the larger horse chestnut. However, the conkers it produces are definitely not up to the standard of Aesculus hippocastanum, at least for the conker player. They are darker, and more wrinkled, and the cases have no spines.
The seeds or nuts of all trees of this genus (Aesculus) contain large amounts of a saponin-class toxin called Aesculin. This is poisonous to many animals including humans because it destroys red blood cells. Indeed, honeybees are poisoned by the nectar of the California buckeye, Aesculus californica. However, the saponin can be removed using boiling water and produces a porridge traditionally eaten by some Native American tribes, and it also seems to relieve colic in horses. Deer and squirrels are unaffected by the toxins and can and do eat the nuts raw.
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