Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

Games with horse chestnut leaves

The seeds of horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) are widely used throughout the British Isles for the game of conkers, less well-known are various games which use the tree’s leaves.

James Britten and Robert Holland, in their Dictionary of English Plant-names, 1886, record that around Norwich, Norfolk, the stalks of horse chestnut leaves were known as knuckle-bleeders:

‘Boys would try to get another to allow them to hit them over the knuckles with the end which grows next to the branch.’

Presumably the game continued until the winner made his opponent’s knuckles bleed.

Another game was recorded by Ray Woods, of Llandindod Wells, Powys, writing in September 1991:

013‘A game was played in Chesterfield, Derbyshure, in the 1950s with the leaf stalks [of horse chestnut].  A stalk was held at each end by one person and another person would place a similarly held stalk behind it at right angles.  Each would then pull in an attempt to break the other’s stalk.  The winner would then be challenged with another fresh stalk.’

‘Fishbones’ seem to have been  most usually made from sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa) leaves:

 ‘As children in Kent in the 1940s whenever we came to a sweet chestnut tree  we would strip out the tissue between the veins to make “fishbones”.  These were useful – very realistic – if playing keeping home or cooking.’

But in c.1995 a father was seen demonstrating this using horse chestnut leaves to a toddler on Tooting Common in south London.

Image:  Westbury, Wiltshire; May 2015.