Decades ago, the older kids on our block would risk the wrath of Mr. Sam by darting into his yard to snatch the horse chestnuts abundantly littering his lawn. We never got in trouble, never even saw him in fact, but danger added to the conviction that our growing piles of glossy conkers were treasure indeed. To this day, if I come across horse chestnuts on the ground, I can’t resist gathering some.

First let me say that horse chestnuts are not edible. These are NOT the chestnuts you want to roast on an open fire and feed to your family. In fact they are toxic. So, since you know that I am fascinated by the usefulness of plants, you might wonder why we are talking about horse chestnuts here.

horse chestnut tree late summer with husks. Photo by Howard Chalkley cc
Horse Chestnuts, Aesculus hippocastanum, belong to the Sapindaceae family, as do soapnuts.

Are Horse Chestnuts Better than Soap Nuts?

Like soap berries (Sapindus mukorossi) or soapwort (Saponaria officinalis), horse chestnuts also contain saponins. As a result you can make laundry soap from them. Yup. Free soap. On the ground. Just waiting for you to take it home. Now I admit that for me this information has been filed in the category of “I should try that some day.” It’s probably not an experiment you’d tackle when you are already being pulled in a dozen directions. But if times ever got tough, or more likely, if you wanted a fun nature craft to do with your kids, it has possibilities.

One December at a Christmas market, I stopped by the booth of a young woman who is just the kind of person I love to support. Her stall was full of simple, natural products to help make a home cozy, healthy and safe. Her motivation was her family, evidenced by husband sitting close at hand, holding their very young baby. She and I chatted about her products and I noticed she was selling soap berries (also known as soap nuts), which come from the Himalayas of India and Nepal where they have been used as long as memory to wash clothes. Soap berries are becoming increasingly popular in North America and Europe as a natural alternative to detergents. The down side is that rising demand is driving up prices, and the locals who have traditionally depended upon these plants can no longer afford them. 

I told her about my discovery that some folks here are using horse chestnuts to make laundry soap. No need to transport them from halfway around the world. You don’t even have to buy them. Find a few trees and you could gather basketfuls. Especially if the kids joined in. Did I mention that kids adore collecting horse chestnuts?

Horse Chestnuts Aesculus hippocastanum. Photo by stauze cc

Horse Chestnut Laundry Soap

Every fall I collect horse chestnuts. I decorate with them. I make crafts with them. Some might even say I hoard them. Today for the first time, I used them to wash the laundry. It’s actually simple. For one load of laundry you need five to six nuts. Wrap them in a clean rag and smash them with a hammer. The smaller the pieces, the more saponins you will extract. Put the crushed chestnuts, including shells, into a designated not-for-food jar and pour in a cup of boiling water. Let the mixture sit for a few hours, or even overnight. Strain, then pour the liquid into the washer as you fill it.

A Few Notes

  • The mixture will not keep more than a few days, even with refrigeration. Like manna, it’s best fresh.
  • There is no scent. If desired, add a few drops of essential oil such as orange, lemon or lavender to the wash water. Swish it around before adding the clothes.
  • Horse chestnut laundry soap removes stains, whitens whites, and brightens colours.
  • Find designated utensils and containers and keep them separate from those for food. Clean any food preparation surfaces that may have come in contact with the horse chestnuts.

Horse Chestnut Identification

If you want to look for horse chestnut trees in your area, here is a helpful and beautiful identification poster from Forestry Images. Image credit: Zelimir Borzan, University of Zagreb.

Horse chestnut identification poster.  Image credit: Zelimir Borzan, University of Zagreb.