Horse Chestnut and Buckeye (Aesculus hippocastanum & Aesculus glabra) offers some unique possibilities for Veterinary Medicine. These trees produces seeds commonly called Buckeyes as every Ohioan knows, but I bet few Ohio horsemen realize the potential of this seed to the health of their horses' legs and lungs. The lowly buckeye is more than just a good luck piece. Dioscorides (father of herbal medicine) described it in his Materia Medica, and it came again to light in a 1566 translation.
The toxicity of this tree is often debated and disputed. You will find controversy is pretty typical with herbs that are poisonous to any degree, hysteria and conjecture reigns. Poisonings which have resulted in human death from the consumption of these seeds have been reputedly reported, but I am very skeptical of such fatal toxicity. It may be more toxic to toddlers which seems to be the subjects of these reported deaths, plus they were probably consumed green. Generally, the literature will warn of possible digestive disturbances, up-set stomachs in overdoses. That's about it. Common believe has it that consumption of seeds may be toxic for livestock, but I have a neighbor who has to hurry to beat his old cows from eating the seeds when I ask him to bring me back a few. His cattle seem to get by without any ill effects. Drying the seeds is advised before processing. Green seeds/husks are more toxic.
An article on poisonous plants was carried in the Equus magazine several years ago in which Horse Chestnut was listed. It went further to say that Horse Chestnut was of moderate toxicity with clinical signs manifesting as muscle tremors and incoordination. This is the first I have read on Horse Chestnut affecting the muscular/nervous system in overdoses. Again let me state that with many poisonous plants, conjecture and hysteria reigns. Few authors have had personal experience with toxic plants and most rely on data extrapolated from previous writings which may or may not be valid.
Juliette de Bairacli Levy, the grand dame of veterinary herbalogy, states that the Horse Chestnut's name was derived from how horses consumed large quantities of these fruits. Also, it was observed that horses showed improvement in respiratory conditions after eating the nuts. Juliette goes on to tell how gypsies and Spanish peasants used the nuts as feed. The bitter taste is often neutralized by grinding the nuts to a powder and then treating with a lime/water solution, washing, and then heating the meal. In this way a highly nutritious starch is produced in Europe. Ms. Levy advises feeding it as a general tonic which particularly strengthens the pulmonary apparatus. She feeds 2-3 handfuls of prepared chestnuts daily.
I have personally taken Horse Chestnut extract in capsule form for my feet and ankles. The extract has significantly reduced my edema. I would be hard pressed to find another medication which would give similar results. What would a Veterinary or Medical doctor do for such a condition? Maybe prescribe a diuretic, not much more. Modern medicine to the best of my knowledge has no specific drug which is designed to improve the tone of the venous system-a compound which will specifically effect the permeability of the vein wall. As many trainers know, it is a nuisance to have a horse on diuretics just for the reason of reducing some non-serious generalized swellings. Most don't fool with it and rely on compression bandages to alleviate stocking-up. This is the beauty of Herbal Medicine. There are wild plants that produce unique chemical compounds that the pharmaceutical industry has not even dreamed up yet. Our ancestors through observation and trial & error have long linked these plant chemicals to medicinal relieve or cures. The shamans and wise women healers of long ago may not have known the name of the active plant component, but they knew which plant improved which ill.
Description: The Aesculus hippocastanum is a large deciduous tree which can grow up to 80 feet high. Its stalkless, toothed leaves are narrow and oval with up to 5-7 in clusters, seven leaflets seems to be somewhat the norm. . Blossoms may be white to pink to yellow. The green fruit is sticky, prickly and contains shinny brown seeds with a lighter colored eye in the center. The Aesculus glabra, Ohio Buckeye, is a smaller tree, more in height limits of 40 feet. Its normal leaf configuration is five, though 4-7 may be observed. Aesculus glabra leaves have more pronounced stalks. The Flowers tend to be yellow and bloom April-May. The husks and seeds seem to be smaller than the hippocastanum. Broken glabra twigs are said to produce an unpleasant odor compared with the hippocastanum, but the glabra on my farm fails that test with little distinctive odor.
Location: Originating in Asia Minor, it is naturalized throughout the USA. The Aesculus glabra commonly found in the Mid-western states growing wild along creeks and in pastures to towns. The Aesculus hippocastanum seems to be more of a planted ornamental found in the towns and less in the wild. The Aesculus californica is found through a large portion of California.
Parts used: The dried seed is the primary part used, but leaves and the inner bark has also been utilized in various medicinal modes, particularly as poultices.
Medicinal Uses: Traditionally, Horse Chestnut was used for circulatory system problems like varicose veins and hemorrhoids. It was also utilized in rheumatism and to relieve dull aching pains found in neuralgia. Modern research points to Escin being one of Horse Chestnut's major active components acting on the peripheral vascular system by reducing the capillary wall's permeability and inducing vein contractions. All this means is that Horse Chestnut can reduce the incidence of lower leg edema and associated pain. Likewise, I think Horse Chestnut could prove a valuable aid in the curbing of race horse bleeding (epistaxis). Simon Mills in his text, Principles and Practice of Phytotherapy, cites a trial study suggesting that Horse Chestnut may be of value in treating lung conditions of infarction/embolism/thrombosis. Mills states that the whole extract made from the Horse Chestnut is probably superior to the isolated Escin. This is a commonly overlooked mechanism of most herbs. The combination of the entire plant components synergistically produce a superior product as compared to a refined, isolated active ingredient of that herb. Horse Chestnut extract has been shown to improve connective tissue tone.
Most of the commercially produced extracts are of the Aesculus hippocastanum and certainly all of the herbal literature singles out this species. John King's American Dispensatory states: "The action of buckeye (Aesculus glabra) is similar to, but more powerful than that of the horse-chestnut (A. Hippocastamum), though some think it less powerful than the latter in its effects upon the portal circulation. It probably acts more powerfully on the spinal than upon the sympathetic nerves., it acts as a decided sedative. The difficult breathing of non-paroxysmal asthma, where the dyspnoea is persistent, but does not amount to a paroxysm, is markedly benefitted by Aesculus glabra, while in coughs, associated with post-manubrial constriction-a sensation of grasping and tightening-its action is positive."