Sweet Chestnut - Castanea sativa
See also: Spanish Chestnut
A long lived tree that can be found throughout Europe, Asia and Africa, the sweet chestnut originated in the eastern Mediterranean but has been spread far and wide due to its delicious edible fruits.
Shape and Texture
Mature sweet chestnuts are characterised by deeply grooved bark that sinuously twists around the trunk of the tree, making it look as if it has rotated during its growth. It is light brown to grey in colour, immature trees looking more silvery grey. The canopy roughly resembles an oak tree at a distance, but up close the lower branches will sweep down towards the ground before lifting up again, almost like a vast skirt. As the trees age they become extremely susceptible to dropping limbs and should be avoided in high winds!
Leaves and Fruits
Sweet chestnuts are most easily identified by their leaves which are large fat lance shapes with a roughly toothed or serrated edge. They are a rich green colour and have a shiny surface and fade to golden yellow in the autumn. Another giveaway is the almost luminous green seed cases which pepper the tree like pom poms in the fall. Although they look soft and fluffy on the tree, sweet chestnut hunters will receive a nasty prick from the densely spiked shells.
However, inside can be found three smooth and shiny, dark brown seeds, often described as 'nuts' although this is a misnomer. In the UK only one of the three is usually ripe and worth collecting, unless it has been a particularly good year. Christians have historically seen the tree as a symbol of goodness, chastity and triumph over temptation due to the image of the inpenetrable spiky shell incasing the sweet seeds within.
Unlike the horse chestnut's showy, creamy pyramids of flowers in the spring, the sweet chestnut's flowers are small and understated, bourne on catkins on the end of the leaves.
Historically the sweet chestnuts has been grown for both the fruits it produced and its timber. The tree is thought to have been introduced to Britain by the Romans, but due to the wetter and cooler climate, the fruits do not mature as well as they do in more southerly countries. Most UK sweet chestnuts found on the shelves of supermarkets are imported from Spain.
...delicacies for princes and a lusty and masculine food for rusticks and able to make a woman well complexioned.
Sweet chestnuts are one of the less fatty nuts, rich as a source of carbohydrates and starch. They can be made into a nutricious flour and porridge, but are probably eaten most at Christmas time when they are roasted over an open fire. Gypsies used to wear the nuts in a bag around the neck to prevent haemorroids.
Medicinally the leaves are used to reduce bleeding and spasms. An ounce of dried leaves should be infused into a pint of boiling water, and a teaspoonful of the resulting mixture drunk four times a day. This helps to reduce 'naggy coughs' such as whooping cough. Culpepper also speaks highly of ground bark as a cure for heavy menstural bleeding.
Sweet chestnuts both coppice and pollard well making it a sustainable resource. In the UK young trees have traditionally been used to make hop poles which support the growth of hops in Kent and Sussex, but these have been replaced by wires in the past century. Most commonly due to the splittable nature of the wood, the timber is used to create chestnut paling, a cheap form of fencing.
Young chestnut timber is mainly durable heartwood and in the past has been used as an alternative to elm, being resistant to swelling or splitting even when immersed in water. However, once the tree is mature its wood becomes brittle and loses its value for construction.
Where can I find them?
Sweet chestnuts can be found growing wild in copses and woodlands, grown in plantations or stands for their nuts and timber, but most commonly and spectacularly can be found growing in parkland as landmark trees.
In the UK the most celebrated sweet chestnut can be found at Tortworth in Gloucestershire. This tree, already ancient in 1135 when it was described as 'The Great Chestnut of Tortworth' in the reign of King Stephen, is now 36 feet in circumference. The trunk has become squat and vast in width, no longer resembling a tree trunk but a great seething mass of branches writhing out of the ground like thick wooden tentacles. Over the hundreds of years of its life branches have fallen and rotted, or touched the ground and rerooted, creating a stand of fresh new chestnut clones around their parent tree. It is an amazing green monument and has probably been growing for at least 1100 years, showing no signs of stopping yet!
The Tortworth Chestnut can be found at:
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Collins field guide to Trees of Britain and Europe - Alan Mitchell
Meetings with Remarkable Trees - Thomas Pakenham
See: http://www.archiemiles.co.uk/Sweet_Chestnut_Gallery.html for pictures of the sweet chestnut