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

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.

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  1. 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. Call the Public Health Dept.

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

        1. 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. 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. 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.

              8 Replies
              1. re: frond

                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

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

                  1. re: zach272

                    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

                      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

                        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

                          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

                            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. re: foodperv

                            uh inedible, or poisonous is what they are, either way don't eat them. They are toxic to humans but not animals.

                    2. 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. 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

                            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

                              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

                                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

                                  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.

                          2. 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

                              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. 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

                                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

                                  Dang, hope that wasn't my mom.

                                  1. re: kobuta

                                    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

                                    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. 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. 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?

                                    10 Replies
                                    1. re: holldoll

                                      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

                                          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

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

                                            1. re: BarmyFotheringayPhipps

                                              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

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

                                                1. re: Prav

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

                                                  1. re: Prav

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

                                                2. re: BarmyFotheringayPhipps

                                                  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. re: holldoll

                                                What part of poisonous don't you understand? Do not eat horse chestnuts. ughhh yes they are toxic. Black walnuts are edible, so are hickory nuts, but black walnuts you must wait or get rid of hard green shell, it will turn black and then the hard nut is inside if you decide to mess with them, its like stain. But they are great. Hickory nuts, the shell is quartered. The black walnuts are solid. Both have the hull but the tiny hickory nut will open, but the nuts so small most would say forget it but people like my elderly mother who did thousands. lol yikes. hazelnuts grow between two fan shaped leaves and are inside like a pea pod only the leave is flat and its very cool. Usually on a bush.

                                              3. 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. 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. 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!

                                                    3 Replies
                                                    1. re: bella_sarda

                                                      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

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

                                                      2. re: bella_sarda

                                                        See my links in reply at top, search for pics of the pods they are in to see difference, very easy once you see them.

                                                      3. 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!

                                                        3 Replies
                                                        1. re: MrsCheese

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

                                                          1. re: MrsCheese

                                                            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

                                                            1. re: MrsCheese

                                                              I thought mine here were too but if you keep comparing you usually see they are not, they are very close in looks.

                                                            2. 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

                                                                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.

                                                              2. well, to find pictures i googled chestnuts and looked at images etc, found a website with info. Generally the really sharp needle like spiked ones are the edible ones. The smoother with a few short spaced spikes which are not near as long, edible ones look like a porcupine, 2 inches long thin sharp spikes. Google horse chestnut image.http://www.eattheweeds.com/chestnuts-...

                                                                and edible ones look like this: http://www.fantasticprovence.com/sect...
                                                                never understand why no one uses the internet fully when they have questions.

                                                                1. There are many chestnuts in us that are edible, the asian chestnut which is very similar to the american chestnut is here and doing well. They brought them over and this is how our trees got the blight, but the asians do not have this issue, just look very hard for small tiny worm holes

                                                                  1. OK here this is edible asian/american chestnut pic with lots of thin long spines. other is horse chestnut. nut looks close but do not eat them.

                                                                    1. Those chestnuts are toxic and not edible, the edible species have a pointed tip and the outer green covering are covered in spikes. The ones in this photo is called the horse chestnut.