Run out of hand sanitiser? Caught short out on a walk and don't have soap? Camping, and have dirty hands? If you have a horse chestnut anywhere near you, you might be in luck. This was the case when we were walking a few days ago and, having touched many fences and stiles, we were a little reluctant to begin our picnic lunch of crackers, hummous and some delicious Somerset cheese.
I can't say using horse chestnuts as soap was my idea - we had actually seen it on a Youtube by UK bushcrafter Haze - my husband has a bit of a boy crush on him. One simply tears horsechestnut leaves, adds water and lathers. That we did, whist watched by a curious robin who was after our Jacob's Crackers. A vigorous scrub brings a few tiny bubbles, and left my hands nice and smooth. It wasn't til I got home that I started investigating horse chestnut a little further. Was there any truth to the horse chestnut hand sanitiser recipe, or did I just scrub my hands with a handful of leaves for no reason?
Horse chestnut, Orchardleigh House, Somerset
There is a magnificent horse chestnut tree just outside our driveway. For the last month, we've watched it go from a bare boned skeloton to an almost fluorescent green giant. Squirrels dart up the trunk. I've never had horse chestnut on my tree radar - in Australia, we don't really grow up with conkers, as kids here in the UK used to, using them for games. On this trip, though, I've been drawn to them - they certainly are beautiful. Do yourself a favour and watch this video of one over the course of a year:
Horse chestnut for a general soap is quite common, I discover. It contains saponins - particularly the seed itself, which if crushed and lathered with water, creates quite the foam. Add a few essential oils, and you have a zero waste, sustainable clothes detergent, and can certainly scrub away at dirt and grease on your hands if you're out in the wild. If you're using the seed, it's simply a matter of smashing them up and adding water. And for the leafs, the crush and add water thing works a treat, as we can attest. It's also used in home made soaps. I'm told that even cars crushing the seeds in puddles as they drive over them cause a soapy lather on the road!
And the thing about saponins, is that they are detergent-like substances which have anti-bacterial properties.
So maybe washing your hands for two rounds of happy birthday with horse chestnut leaves has something in it after all? Remember, it's not conker season here, nor did we walk with a hammer to break into them, so the leaves had to do.
Beautiful Red Horse Chestnut, Wells, Somerset
Horse chestnuts, particularly the seeds, have been used in traditional remedies for anything to do with veins, from swollen ankles to hameorrids. In Germany, it's used in sports medicine, to 'ease pain, bruising and swelling from sprains and other contusions or sports injuries.', according to Mother Earth Magazine., reducing pain and swelling, as well as preventing bruising (something I've always used arnica for). The article continues to add that:
'A recent review of these studies concluded that horse chestnut seed extract is safe and effective for decreasing symptoms of CVI, including reducing lower-leg volume (circumference at the calf and ankle), leg pain, itching, fatigue and muscular tension in the legs. Five of these clinical trials compared horse chestnut extract against treatment with a standard drug. The reviewers concluded that horse chestnut extract was superior to placebo and just as effective as the standard (European) treatment. Another trial suggested that horse chestnut extract is as effective as compression stockings.'
Another study suggests that:
Extracts from A. hippocastanum, and in particular, those based on horse chestnut seeds, contain saponins, known collectively as aescin, which have a gentle soapy feel, and are potent anti-inflammatory compounds. The results indicated that each the crude extracts of the leaf, seed, seed coat and fruit capsule extracts of A. hippocastanum(horse-chestnut) exhibited more or less pronounced antibacterial and antifungal potencies in the case of both gram-positive and gram-negative bacteria and fungus.
So, at a push, if you're stuck, I'd say grab a handful of horsechestnut leaves and scrub away. Sure, next time I'm packing my hand sanitisier, but at least if I forget, I have a back up.