Horse chestnuts and sweet chestnuts may share the same name but they aren’t related, neither are they native to Britain although they are now common trees.
Sweet chestnuts are common throughout mainland Europe and have been grown for centuries as their ‘nuts’ are edible. This is the species that people eat as roasted chestnuts. It is thought that sweet chestnuts were brought to the UK by the Romans – so in many ways they are now honorary natives. Often the tree is coppiced in Britain and the poles are used for fencing – chestnut paling. For more details see here.
Horse chestnuts are native to a small area in SE Europe and were originally called chestnuts as they were incorrectly thought to be related to sweet chestnuts. Equally odd, they were named ‘horse’ as it was thought that feeding the conkers to horses cured them of chest infections even though the conkers are poisonous to horses …… Horse chestnuts were introduced to Britain in the 1600s. More information here.
Both species are found on Dartmoor – often sweet chestnut has been planted in woodlands to provide fencing posts – in the UK the nuts rarely grow big enough to roast and eat. Horse chestnuts are rarely found in woodlands but are common in hedges and parkland. Now is the time to search the ground under horse chestnuts to collect the conkers so that they can be prepared to future battles.