Ever since 1633 the Horse Chestnut tree has grown and flourished in England, having been brought at first from the mountains of Northern Asia. For the most part the Chestnut tree is rather known and admired for its wealth of shade, its large handsome floral spikes of creamy, pink-tinted blossom, and its white, soft wood, than supposed to exercise useful medicinal properties.
But none the less is the Horse Chestnut tree remarkable for the curative virtues contained in its large nuts of mahogany polish, its broad palmate leaves, and its smooth silvery bark. These virtues have been discovered and made public especially by physicians and chemists of the homoeopathic school. From the large digitated leaves an extract is made which has proved of service in whooping-cough, and of which from one-third to half a teaspoonful may be given for a dose.
On the Continent the bark is held in estimation for cutting short attacks of intermittent fever and ague by acting in the same way as Peruvian bark, though it is much more astringent. But the nuts are chiefly to be regarded as the medicinal belongings of the Horse Chestnut tree; and their bodily sphere of action is the rectum, or lower bowel, in cases of piles, and of obstinate constipation. Their use is particularly indicated when the bottom of the back gives out on walking, with aching and a sense of weariness in that region. Likewise, signal relief is found to be wrought by the same remedy when the throat is duskily red and dry, in conjunction with costiveness, and piles. A tincture is made from the ripe nuts with spirit of wine, for the purposes described above, or the nuts themselves are finely powdered and given in that form. These nuts are starchy, and contain so much potash, that they may be used when boiled for washing purposes.
In France and Switzerland they are employed for cleansing wool and bleaching linen, on account of their "saponin." Botanically, the Horse Chestnut is named AEsculus hippocastanea—the first word coming from esca, food; and the second from hippos, a horse; and Castana, the city, so called. The epithet "horse" does not imply any remedial use in diseases of that animal, but rather the size and coarseness of this species as compared with the Sweet Spanish Chestnut. In the same way we talk of the horse radish, the horse daisy, and the horse leech. In Turkey the fruit is given to horses touched or broken in the wind, but in this country horses will not eat it.
Nevertheless, Horse Chestnuts may be used for fattening cattle, particularly sheep, the nuts being cut up, and mixed with oats, or beans. Their bitterness can be removed by first washing the Chestnuts in lime water. Medicinally, the ripe nut of this tree is employed, being collected in September or October, and deprived of its shell. The odour of the flowers is powerful and peculiar. No chemical analysis of them, or of the nuts, has been made, but they are found to contain tannin freely. Rich-coloured, of a reddish brown, and glossy, these nuts have given their name to a certain shade of mellow dark auburn hair.
Of the Horse Chestnut tincture, two or three drops, with a spoonful of water, taken before meals and at bedtime, will cure almost any simple case of piles in a week. Also, carrying a Horse Chestnut about the person, is said to obviate giddiness, and to prevent piles.
Taken altogether, the Horse Chestnut, for its splendour of blossom, and wealth of umbrageous leaf, its polished mahogany fruit, and its special medicinal virtues, is facile princeps the belle of our English trees. But, like many a ball-room beauty, when the time comes for putting aside the gay leafy attire, it is sadly untidy, and makes a great litter of its cast-off clothing.
It has been ingeniously suggested that the cicatrix of the leaf resembles a horse-shoe, with all its nails evenly placed.
The Sweet Spanish Chestnut tree is grown much less commonly in this country, and its fruit affords only material for food, without possessing medicinal properties; though, in the United States of America, an infusion of the leaves is thought to be useful for staying the paroxysms of whooping-cough. Of all known nuts, this (the Sweet Chestnut, Stover Nut, or Meat Nut) is the most farinaceous and least oily; hence it is more easy of digestion than any other. To mountaineers it is invaluable, so that on the Apennines and the Pyrenees the Chestnut harvest is the event of the year. The Italian Chestnut-cakes, called necci, contain forty per cent. of nutritious matter soluble in cold water; and Chestnut flour, when properly prepared, is a capital food for children.
To be harvested the Chestnuts are spread on a frame of lattice-work overhead, and a fire is kept burning underneath. When dry the fruit is boiled, or steamed, or roasted, or ground into a kind of flour, with which puddings are made, or an excellent kind of bread is produced. The ripe Chestnut possesses a fine creamy flavour, and when roasted it becomes almost aromatic. A good way to cook Chestnuts is to boil them for twenty minutes, and then place them for five minutes more in a Dutch oven.
It was about the fruit of the Spanish tree Shakespeare  said: "A woman's tongue gives not half so great a blow to the ear as will a Chestnut in a farmer's fire." In the United States of America an old time-worn story, or oft repeated tale, is called in banter a "Chestnut," and a stale joker is told "not to rattle the Chestnuts."
For convalescents, after a long serious illness, the French make a chocolate of sweet Chestnuts, which is highly restorative. The nuts are first cooked in eau de vie until their shells and the pellicle of the kernels can be peeled off; then they are beaten into a pulp together with sufficient milk and sugar, with some cinnamon added. The mixture is afterwards boiled with more milk, and frothed up in a chocolate pot.