HORSE CHESTNUT: BEHOLD THE CONKEROR

Dec. 3, 2015: I have always been interested in the junction where history and botany meets. One of the more peculiar junctions involves the horse chestnut tree and how it won World War I and started the nation of Israel (well, it kinda helped, but that's not as dramatic)

The horse chestnut, a native of the Balkans, is used as a street and ornamental tree throughout Europe and North America. It's large brown nut is contained in a green spiny husk and, unlike the sweet chestnut that is edible, the horse chestnut is poisonous.

In Britain, the nut is called a conker and a game, "conkers", is played where the nut is suspended on a string and one swings it into an opposing players nut to see if you can crack it. There is even a World Conkers Championship. In the US, as a child, we used throw the nut, with spiny husk attached, at each other's heads to see if we could get them to stick. I don't recall how we scored those matches but it was much more violent than the English version. I recall having been scored upon several times.

But, I digress, back to WWI and the horse chestnut. In the spring of 1915 Britain was suffering from The Great Shell Shortage. Stores of cordite, the stuff that makes high explosive shells go boom, were dangerously low. It was so bad that artiliery and naval guns were rationed four shells a day. Since 1889, Britain had replaced gunpowder with cordite as the explosive agent in shells. Cordite is a mixture of nitroglycerine, petroleum jelly and gun cotton and the chemical process to produce it required large quantities of acetone. Acetone was produced by the destructive distillation of wood and whole forests were cut and burned to keep the shell factories going.

Britain did not have enough wood to meet its ammunition needs and relied on the forests of North America to supply it. The problem resulted from shipping that wood to Britain through German sub infested waters. It wasn't working. British Minister of Munitions, David Lloyd George, enlisted the aid of a Jewish chemist, Chaim Weizmann. Weizman developed an acetone production process that could use varied forms of cellulose, such as corn or potatoes. Once again there was a problem because corn and potatoes were needed to feed the English populace and troops.

So where do you find an abundant supply of cellulose that's not a foodstuff or wood? Turns out there's a whole lot of horse chestnuts in Britain. The government put out an appeal to the schoolchildren of Britain to collect the nuts. In short order, the patriotic (plus a few shillings per hundred pound bag) kids collected so many horse chesnuts that tons of them were left rotting by the railway. Shell production was back on track and the Brits were back to bombing the bejesus out of the Germans.

Chaim Weizmann, the Jewish chemist that made this possible , became a venerated member of British political circles. Chaim was also an ardent Zionist and argued passionately within those political circles for the formation of an independent Jewish nation. In 1917 his persuasion lead to the Balfour Declaration, which was a promise by the British government to help form a national homeland for the Jew out of Palestine, then in control of by the Ottoman Turks. It was the first in a long series of steps to the birth of Israel and Weizmann later became the first president of the nation.

And that's how the horse chestnut conkerd Germany, won WWI and started Israel (or sorta, kinda). If I had known all that as a kid, it would have seemed less painful having them stuck to my head.

F & P