HOME > Chowhound > Greater Boston Area >

Chestnuts picked up from trees in Harvard Square: safe to eat? what species?

bella_sarda Oct 8, 2009 12:19 PM

Does anyone know if these are European, Chinese, Japanese, or horse chestnuts? Are they edible or are they toxic? Of course I would roast and blanch them properly.

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. hiddenboston RE: bella_sarda Oct 8, 2009 12:30 PM

    This is perhaps the most unusual question I've ever seen on Chowhound. Having said that, my answer is a very strong, very definite "I have no idea."

    1. c
      CookieLee RE: bella_sarda Oct 8, 2009 12:31 PM

      Call the Public Health Dept.

      1. n
        NahantNative RE: bella_sarda Oct 8, 2009 12:38 PM

        I would assume the squirrels/homeless would have snatched them up by now if they were edible.

        1. nsenada RE: bella_sarda Oct 8, 2009 12:47 PM

          I'd be very curious to hear the answer to this one - I've often wondered how you can tell which chestnuts are delicious, and which are non-delicious/deadly.

          1. p
            pemma RE: bella_sarda Oct 8, 2009 12:54 PM

            I think most of the Chestnut trees in this area are horse chestnuts (unedible). I believe the American chestnut which is edible was largely wiped out by some sort of blight. Here is a guide to identifying chestnut trees.:


            1. f
              frond RE: bella_sarda Oct 8, 2009 12:57 PM

              I believe they are horse chestnuts. I do not remember seeing any edible chestnut varieties when I was studying landscape architecture at Harvard. We were taken on field trips around Harvard Square as part of our plant courses. According to this link
              it takes a great deal of preparation to make horse chestnuts safe to eat. But I must admit I was studying there 25 years ago but i do still frequent the area and haven't noticed any edible varieties.

              7 Replies
              1. re: frond
                andieb RE: frond Oct 8, 2009 01:04 PM

                I think frond is correct. I grew up in the area and if I remember correctly the variety here is the horse chestnut which is not edible..or can be edible but not in the way the european variety is..

                1. re: andieb
                  zach272 RE: andieb Oct 8, 2009 01:19 PM

                  Frond is correct. The nut-bearing trees on the Yard are horse chestnuts, not true chestnuts, and the nuts are inedible.

                  1. re: zach272
                    hotoynoodle RE: zach272 Oct 8, 2009 04:12 PM

                    i thought horse chestnuts had those spiky exteriors? that being said, i would never ever eat anything from off the ground in harvard sq.

                    someone recently asked if they could kill and eat the canadian geese in their local town park though.

                    yeah, that egg raft question was way gross. lol.

                    1. re: zach272
                      foodperv RE: zach272 Oct 8, 2009 04:14 PM

                      is that in-edible because of bad taste or you got to boil them for a month of sundays or are they toxic

                      1. re: foodperv
                        zach272 RE: foodperv Oct 8, 2009 04:43 PM

                        The spiky exteriors are the husks that surround the nut.

                        as for whether they're edible in theory, I'm honestly not sure, but I've never seen instructions on how one would prepare them. Mostly they're just described as "inedible" or "semi-poisonous" and left at that.

                        1. re: foodperv
                          kobuta RE: foodperv Oct 9, 2009 06:56 AM

                          Unless, these were the same trees, I thought most of the chestnuts had a similar spikey exterior. You just need to peel that layer off and you get usually multiple nuts inside. I picked chestnuts up from trees that lined an apple orchard last year and I ate them. Not nearly as meaty because I only found smaller ones, but still alive!

                          On a related note, you can also pick the gingko nuts from the trees around town and eat those, but just be careful carrying them around as the flesh of the fruit that encases the nut smells to high heaven (as many may know).

                          1. re: kobuta
                            kobuta RE: kobuta Oct 13, 2009 10:49 AM

                            Just wanted to add that I looked at the pictures online of the horse chestnut vs regular chestnuts (in their green shells) and I definitely had the regular sweet chestnuts. *phew* Guess that explains why I'm still around.

                            Helpful post with pictures, in case anyone else is tempted to try:

                  2. h
                    hckybg RE: bella_sarda Oct 8, 2009 01:11 PM

                    I would be willing to bet that some work with an Audubon field guide (to identify the tree) and a call to an arborist at the Arboretum would yield a definitive answer.

                    1. steinpilz RE: bella_sarda Oct 8, 2009 03:50 PM

                      I have an American Chestnut in my area and I was also gathering chestnuts this week a nice fall ritual. It's a good year for acorns and chestnuts, last year most of the chestnuts I saw were stunted. Here's a webpage that I like:


                      6 Replies
                      1. re: steinpilz
                        cassis RE: steinpilz Oct 8, 2009 04:56 PM

                        Neat website, thanks!

                        1. re: steinpilz
                          StriperGuy RE: steinpilz Oct 9, 2009 07:35 AM

                          You are VERY lucky. As mentioned below most American chestnuts, one of the dominant tree species at one time, got wiped out by blight. You may have a one that just avoided infection, or even more rare, and possibly important, a naturally blight resistant tree.

                          Also American chestnuts are supposed to be better eating than the European and Chinese varieties you can get in stores.


                          1. re: StriperGuy
                            steinpilz RE: StriperGuy Oct 11, 2009 05:50 AM

                            Thanks StriperGuy. The tree produces some full sized nuts but many stunted ones, maybe I shouldn't eat them and try sprouting instead? I'll have to read up. I think it's growing from a stump because I read in a local history that chestnuts were planted in that area in the 1800s, I should ask around about the tree.

                            As yesterday was perfect for walking in the woods I took al long hike and stumbled upon a shagbark hickory and a black walnut (thanks to HollDoll below I recognised the walnut fruit), so today I'm planning to husk a bunch of walnuts and hickory nuts!

                            1. re: steinpilz
                              StriperGuy RE: steinpilz Oct 11, 2009 06:02 PM

                              There are people working to restore the American Chestnut including a blight resistant tree and they are always interested in survivors to potentially use for grafting, cross breeding, etc.

                              1. re: StriperGuy
                                steinpilz RE: StriperGuy Oct 18, 2009 04:42 PM

                                An update for StriperGuy, it's a Chinese Chestnut going by this site:


                                So I can eat them! Understandably, Peterson's Guide does not include foreign species.

                                1. re: steinpilz
                                  StriperGuy RE: steinpilz Oct 18, 2009 06:12 PM

                                  Hey edible is good regardless.

                        2. Veggo RE: bella_sarda Oct 8, 2009 05:28 PM

                          There is only a handful of nut-bearing chestnuts in New England. The blight got every chestnut tree there in a single decade, 100 years ago. The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station worked to develop resistant hybrids at a farm adjacent to my family's property, and we were allowed to collect the drops from bearing trees since the late 50's. But to this day there is not a sturdy hybrid that I know of to replace what was once a dominant New England species.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: Veggo
                            steinpilz RE: Veggo Oct 8, 2009 07:30 PM

                            The one by me is a fairly young tree that I'd guess survived an older stump (reading Peterson's Guide). A wide variety of mushrooms pop up under it over the year and it smells strongly of mushrooms when blossoming in the spring.

                          2. g
                            greengage RE: bella_sarda Oct 8, 2009 09:37 PM

                            I'm going to keep my eye on this one! As far as I know, those big, shiny "conkers" are not edible like the smaller, matte brown chestnuts. But I'll be interested to find out more.

                            4 Replies
                            1. re: greengage
                              ginnyhw RE: greengage Oct 9, 2009 06:25 AM

                              There was a large horse chestnut tree in our church yard in Brookline and every year elderly Chinese women came by and scooped up every one of them.

                              1. re: ginnyhw
                                kobuta RE: ginnyhw Oct 9, 2009 06:57 AM

                                Dang, hope that wasn't my mom.

                                1. re: kobuta
                                  ginnyhw RE: kobuta Oct 9, 2009 08:23 AM

                                  Maybe she has some ideas about what they use them for!
                                  When we were kids we used them in some game - it's in wiki
                                  traditionally played by children in Britain, Ireland and some former British colonies using the seeds of horse-chestnut trees – the name conker is also applied to the seed and to the tree itself. The game is played by two players, each with a conker threaded onto a piece of string: they take turns to strike each other's conker until one breaks.

                                2. re: ginnyhw
                                  Allstonian RE: ginnyhw Oct 9, 2009 07:04 AM

                                  Heh. I've seen elderly Chinese women assiduously collecting the gingko nuts that have fallen from the trees in front of Clear Four Bread as well. Still, a quick bit of googling brings up numerous references that say that horse chestnuts are inedible at best and poisonous at worst.

                              2. Allstonian RE: bella_sarda Oct 9, 2009 04:00 AM

                                Barmy and I walked through Harvard Square last night, and having taken a look at the trees in question I can confidently say that those are horse chestnuts.

                                1. holldoll RE: bella_sarda Oct 9, 2009 06:42 PM

                                  I have a whole bowl of them (collected outside of Harvard Yard)
                                  They are beautiful and look no different from the ones we buy in the store.
                                  I was planning on boiling them. We x them and boil them and then eat them cold.
                                  I had no idea they could be toxic.
                                  There are black walnuts around the Fresh Pond Reservoir. They look like small green apples and the nut shell is contained inside.
                                  Could they be toxic as well?

                                  9 Replies
                                  1. re: holldoll
                                    Veggo RE: holldoll Oct 9, 2009 07:06 PM

                                    Usually the squirrels get the black walnuts before they drop. The nuts aren't ripe until the husks turn brown and start to split, like hickory nuts. It can sound like a gentle rain under the tree when they are gnawing away the husks and shells. Cracking the hard shells and picking the nut meat is tedious work. It may take an hour to get enough nut meat to fill a shot glass.

                                    1. re: holldoll
                                      StriperGuy RE: holldoll Oct 10, 2009 05:03 PM

                                      Black walnuts are delicious.

                                      1. re: holldoll
                                        BobB RE: holldoll Oct 12, 2009 12:50 PM

                                        There's only one thing I've ever seen done with horse chestnuts and it has nothing to do with food. When I was a kid around here we'd use an old nail to make a hole through them, push a string through and knot off the end. Then we'd take turns playing this game where one kid would let his chestnut dangle while the other would swing his and try to whack the dangling one. Whichever chestnut lasted the longest without breaking was the winner. But both winner and loser usually ended up with bruised knuckles to boot (don't ask me why we did this, it's just one of those things everyone did during horse chestnut season).

                                        1. re: BobB
                                          BarmyFotheringayPhipps RE: BobB Oct 13, 2009 03:09 PM

                                          Our UK friends know this as Conkers, which is one of the iconic childhood games of Britain.

                                          1. re: BarmyFotheringayPhipps
                                            Veggo RE: BarmyFotheringayPhipps Oct 13, 2009 04:16 PM

                                            I had a college roommate from Galway, and he proudly showed me his conker and explained the deal to me, and how he used it to vanquish all comers during his youth. If our dorm had caught fire and he could retrieve only one item, it would have been his conker.

                                            1. re: Veggo
                                              Prav RE: Veggo Oct 13, 2009 05:23 PM

                                              Showed you his conker! Was this at Tufts? ;)

                                              1. re: Prav
                                                bear RE: Prav Oct 13, 2009 05:41 PM

                                                yeah, I was wondering, did you show him yours?

                                                1. re: Prav
                                                  Veggo RE: Prav Oct 13, 2009 05:45 PM

                                                  Wharton. And prithee, I beg restraint as to anecdotes of showing conkers, lest they be misunderstood.

                                              2. re: BarmyFotheringayPhipps
                                                BobB RE: BarmyFotheringayPhipps Oct 14, 2009 09:14 AM

                                                Yes! We called it that too, I'd forgotten the name. My old neighborhood was predominantly Irish so that's probably where it came from. But of course here in Boston we pronounced it conkahs.

                                          2. p
                                            Parsnipity RE: bella_sarda Oct 9, 2009 07:21 PM

                                            This is a great thread. I've been wanting some sort of local resource like fallenfruit.org for swapping tips about what we can eat that grows around us. I mean, it's Chow, right?

                                            1. l
                                              lergnom RE: bella_sarda Oct 10, 2009 05:43 PM

                                              There's a tree at the end of my street and some of the immigrants tap the nuts with sticks and gather them. They're fine to eat.

                                              1. b
                                                bella_sarda RE: bella_sarda Oct 13, 2009 10:11 AM

                                                Ok, I guess I'll pass on roasting them given the high probability that they're horse chestnuts. And thanks for all the very interesting information. That said, if they were American chestnuts or another edible variety I would not hesitate to eat them, despite some people's squeamishness about eating things foraged from Harvard Square. Chestnuts have got an outer shell and an inner shell, both of which are removed before eating. And if any of you saw what happens to the food (especially meat) you buy in the supermarket before you eat it, you might think twice about eating lots of things!

                                                2 Replies
                                                1. re: bella_sarda
                                                  bear RE: bella_sarda Oct 13, 2009 05:43 PM

                                                  Foraging the chestnuts in Harvard Square seems pretty tame compared to a hiddenboston post a couple of months ago about a Newton Chinese restaurant once getting caught trying to catch the ducks in a local pond!

                                                  1. re: bear
                                                    StriperGuy RE: bear Oct 14, 2009 01:30 AM

                                                    Seriously, I have always thought those geese might be tasty. Foraging in Harvard Yard, right up my alley.

                                                2. MrsCheese RE: bella_sarda Oct 13, 2009 05:07 PM

                                                  Thanks so much for this thread - with all of the wealth of information here, I discovered that the tree on the edge of my yard is a "real" chestnut tree, and the leaves look just like the American variety on the MA chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation website, though I guess it's likely it's a hybrid. I think I may send some specimens in for ID!

                                                  2 Replies
                                                  1. re: MrsCheese
                                                    StriperGuy RE: MrsCheese Oct 13, 2009 05:13 PM

                                                    I'd be happy to help you eat the chestnuts ;-)

                                                    1. re: MrsCheese
                                                      minddancez RE: MrsCheese Oct 16, 2009 11:06 AM

                                                      For awhile, the American Chestnut Foundation had folks in the Boston area who would come to your yard and let you know whether the tree was, in fact, an American Chestnut or something else. They would take pics if it was bigger than a certain size -- some trees seem to have a natural resistance to blight for awhile. Check with the Massachusetts chapter: http://masschestnut.org/index.php

                                                    2. GilbyEast RE: bella_sarda Oct 14, 2009 11:48 AM

                                                      According to the Harvard Yard Tree species list they are either Ohio Buckeye (Aesculus glabra) or Red Horsechestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum). Check out the map at http://www.crimsoncanopy.com/harvardy... to determine what tree you are harvesting. Then it is up to you to decide if they are edible. Some say both are historically edible, but I just don't like chestnuts enough to bother with the leeching and roasting process.

                                                      1 Reply
                                                      1. re: GilbyEast
                                                        bella_sarda RE: GilbyEast Oct 16, 2009 10:47 AM

                                                        Thanks. Looks like what I got was from the Ohio Buckeye, which is also a species of horsechestnut (according to the Harvard website), and therefore not edible. I already threw them away, although they were lovely to look at for a while.

                                                      Show Hidden Posts