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French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health & Safety

Learn to distinguish horse chestnuts from sweet chestnuts, to avoid poisoning!

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News of 25/09/2019

In this early autumn period, horse chestnuts, which grow and fall from the horse chestnut or conker tree, are frequently confused with sweet chestnuts, which come from the sweet or Spanish chestnut tree.

In a study by ANSES on cases of confusion between plants recorded by French poison control centres from 2012 to 2018, confusion of horse chestnuts with sweet chestnuts accounted for 11% of cases, all seasons combined, and were the most frequent after cases of confusion of bulb plants (12% of cases).

Indeed, although we commonly talk about "chestnuts", "candied chestnuts" and "chestnut purée" or "cream", we are actually only referring to a large sweet chestnut variety grown specifically for consumption.

While cultivated or wild sweet chestnuts are edible, horse chestnuts are toxic, and can cause digestive disorders such as abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting, or throat irritation.

How can we distinguish horse chestnuts from sweet chestnuts?

Observe the shape of the nuts and of the "cupule" that encases them:

  • The sweet chestnut's cupule, known as a "burr", is brown and has numerous long bristly spines. It contains two to three nuts at a time, which are fairly small, flattened and triangular;
  • Horse chestnut cupules are thick and green, with small, short, wider spaced spikes, and generally contain only one larger rounded nut.

Look at where the trees are located and examine their leaves:

  • Horse chestnut trees are found in cities, parks, alleys and schoolyards... while sweet chestnut trees grow in woods, forests or orchards;
  • Each horse chestnut leaf consists of several oval "leaflets", which give the whole leaf a palm-shaped appearance, whereas sweet chestnut leaves are simple and elongated without leaflets.

 

Take care not to confuse them and enjoy!

Keep meal leftovers or take photos of the nuts you pick for easier identification in the event of poisoning
In the event of a medical emergency, dial 15 (in France) or go to the hospital emergency department
In the event of symptoms of poisoning (digestive disorders, etc.), call a poison control centre or see a doctor