Analyses of lignite coal deposits show that, prior to the last ice age, the horse chestnut was indigenous to Central Europe. Then it was displaced to the south and spread through northern Greece, the Balkan mountain ranges, Asia Minor, and the Caucasus to the Himalayas. It didn’t return to Central Europe until the physician and botanist Karl Clusius (1526-1609) received horse chestnut as a farewell present from the Turkish sultan. In 1576, he planted them in the court garden in Vienna. Matthiolus (1565) produced the first drawing and description; he had received a branch of fruits from Constantinople. But it took a lot more time before the tree spread in Central Europe. Its stateliness, beautiful leaves, and magnificent flowers have made it a standby in gardens and parks.
The origin of the family name "Aesculus" is unclear. Linnaeus says it was named for a kind of oak. The species name "hippocastanum" means, literally, "horse chestnut"; it recalls the use of the seed to treat coughing and broken wind in horses and also distinguishes it from the chestnut eaten by humans. But horse chestnuts are a popular winter feed for deer and wild boar.
The horse chestnut found medical application in the treatment of hemorrhoids, uterine bleeding, vaginal and intestinal catarrh, chronic bronchitis, epilepsy, migraine, and dizziness. It was an ingredient in snuffs used to treat nasal polyps. A widespread folk belief was that carrying horse chestnut seeds in one’s pocket would prevent gout, rheumatism, and back pains.
The horse chestnut is a stately tree 30 to 40 meters in height; it can live for up to 250 years and generally dies from wind breakage. Its trunk is gray-brown with bark initially smooth and later scaly. Thick, conical, sticky, dark red buds appear in Spring. Pentuply to septuply digitate leaves unroll from the buds to become 20 cm long. Young leaves are brownish red and covered with wooly hair. After the hair disappears, the leaves turn green and extend themselves in a horizontal position. More than a hundred individual white or reddish blossoms are usually grouped in the conical, erect inflorescence. The green, spiny fruits have a coarse shell that bursts when the fruit is ripe. The fruit contains one or two glossy, dark brown seeds with a whitish chalaza.
The horse chestnut flowers from May to June.
The unrelated edible Spanish chestnut or marron (Castanea vesca/sativa) belongs to the fagaceae (beech family).
Through cultivation, the horse chestnut is widespread and has widely gone wild. It is found at elevations up to 1200 meters in all moderate climate zones and prefers shady, moist sites.
A.Vogel/Bioforce produces a tincture, a concentrated film tablet, and a homeopathic trituration from the fresh seeds («chestnuts») gathered in the wild.
Extracts from the fresh buds (gemmae) and flowers are also used medically. For the preparation of an infusion the use of leaves or bark is common.
Horse chestnut flour can be used to wash laundry («bolus soap»), after removal of the tanning agents and saponins, as a baking flour, and for a wide variety of industrial applications. Escin is used in the cosmetic industry for gels, oil-in-water emulsions , and because it absorbs ultraviolet rays, as a sun-blocker .