Without much of a summer, it was like I turned around and it was fall. Luckily, I love fall. Adore. It is my favorite season.
But is was still shocking to see the trees suddenly aflame in orange and red. Walking became difficult as the ground was bumpily carpeted in fallen nuts. The title “Berlin Nuts” feels like I’m talking about the people (hello Berliner Schnauze), but I am being quite literal. As a west coast (USA) native I am thoroughly unfamiliar with these nuts that were suddenly EVERYWHERE.
Looking at my facebook groups of expats in Berlin, I see other people had similar questions. What type of nuts are they? Can you eat them? Wait – you can use them to wash your clothes!? So I dug in and did some research so fellow nut nubes aren’t as clueless as I was. Follow my discovery of the humble Kastanien.
Horse Chestnuts in Berlin
Pushing around one of these green monsters (below), you might never guess what lies within. Underneath the spiky green layer, the interior nut is surprisingly smooth and glossy. Crushing its shell beneath my foot, I saw the nut inside was soft and looks chewy, begging to be put in the mouth. Littering every park, could the Weihnachtsmärkte (Christmas markets) treat of roasted maroni be that bountiful?
Sadly, it is not. These tricky buggers are not delicious chestnuts, but horse chestnuts (or Aesculus hippocastanum if you’re fancy). In the USA, the common Ohio buckeye (Aesculus glabra) is quite similar. More observant tree-lovers than I will notice the leaves, shells and trees of edible chestnuts and those of horse chestnuts or buckeyes have very different features. For example, edible chestnuts are much pointier than their inedible counterparts. And despite the name, horse chestnuts are mildly poisonous to humans and horses.
Horse Chestnut Games: Conkers or Kastanien
So if you can’t eat them, what are they good for? Though completely unbeknownst to me, the game of conkers is famous around the world and Germans have even been world champions (of course they are). Known as Kastanien in Germany, the game is popular with kids of all ages.
Competitors search out the biggest nut they can find and punch a hole through the middle. Adults should help with this part as it requires a hammer and nail. Once you have a hole, run a string through it with a knot to hold the nut on and you are ready to go. Start hurling conkers at each other and you are playing. To be honest, I’ve watched this game on youtube like 5 times and I still don’t really get it. It seems a little anti-climatic. Even with all the rules and cheating moves like soaking your prize nut in vinegar.
But whatever. It is popular. It’ll probably be one of those mysterious things my daughter picks up and I’ll have to learn all about. Currently she just likes to collect them and I routinely find them in her pockets, my pockets, her backpack, her underpants…seriously.
Other Uses for Horse Chestnuts
If you are equally unimpressed with Kastanien, there are some other uses.
- Google basteln mit Kastanien to find a million and one ways to craft with nuts. A lot of it seems to be making little nut people and animals.
- You can actually wash your clothes with horse chestnuts! Apparently, chestnuts contain saponins, a soap-like chemical compound. To use, simply crush up the nuts, add water, and after about a day you have natural laundry detergent.
- Best use: Spread them around the house as spider deterrent. I haven’t found an official resource affirming this, but I hope it is true. Doing it just in case.
Where to Find Edible Chestnuts in Berlin
Of course you can find edible chestnuts at the store in season, and they are a popular roasted treat at the Christmas markets. But finding them in the wild is a bit of a challenge. Of course, some Germans are up for it as they regularly scavenge for their mushrooms, Bärlauch, and everything else found in Germany. The Berlin Plants site has a helpful post identifying some trees in the city and everything else flora related in Berlin.
Clearly my nut prowess is still in the beginner stages. If you have anything to add or want to share info about your favorite nuts, I’d love to hear it.