It’s getting to be the season when nothing beats roasting chestnuts over a fire, but you have to be careful where you get your nuts from.
In Victoria lots of the trees that you may think grow chestnuts, grow horse-chestnuts instead.
If you eat a horse-chestnut you will likely experience digestive problems such as abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting and throat irritation because they are, in fact, poisonous.
The trees that grow these two nuts are actually not even related to one another. Horse-chestnuts are part of the soapberry family where chestnuts are related to beech trees.
A problem in Victoria is that both trees are used as boulevard trees, lining our streets from Oak Bay to Esquimalt and everywhere in between.
The nuts themselves appear strikingly similar when removed from their spiny shells, but the shells appear quite different.
If you find some nuts on the ground and want to know if they’re edible or not but you can’t see any of the spiny shells they came from on the ground, there is another way to identify them.
Take a look at the branches of the tree the nuts fell from, right beneath where the leaves grow out of the branch, you may notice a ‘U’ shape. If this horseshoe reminiscent ‘U’ is present it means it’s a horse-chestnut.
If you were to accidentally eat a horse-chestnut thinking it was a chestnut, you’d likely be able to tell pretty quickly. Horse-chestnuts do not taste good. They are well known for their horrible taste.
Although they are poisonous due to a toxin they contain called aesculin, they wouldn’t be fatal to a full-grown adult unless many were consumed. However, children can become much sicker off of smaller doses of aesculin.
All information on horse-chestnuts was provided by the Compost Education Centre located in Victoria. They have a hotline you can call anytime for answers about horse-chestnuts versus chestnuts, gardening, composting or any other green-thumbed inquiry.
You can reach them at (250) 386 9676.
The Compost Education Centre also has an upcoming workshop called ‘Making the Case for Nut Trees’ about this topic on November 19th if you’d like to learn more about nuts in Victoria.