Dear Readers, I confess a great liking for the sweet chestnut tree. It was introduced to the UK by the Romans, who loved its sweet, mealy fruit, and grew it not only for this purpose but also for its timber and perceived medicinal benefits (its Latin name sativa means ‘cultivated by humans’). I love it for its furry fruits, and for those shiny serrated green leaves. The tree can live for several thousand years, and can reach a height of 35 metres.
Sweet chestnut is not closely related to horse chestnut, although the fruits do resemble conkers – sweet chestnuts are members of the Beech family (Fagaceae), while horse chestnuts and buckeyes belong to the soapberry and lychee family Sapindaceae. It just goes to show that superficial differences, such as the ‘hairy’ nut cases and the leaves which spray out like fingers from a central point, do not indicate an actual family relationship.
The bark has a characteristic spiral pattern, which I noted on another sweet chestnut that I saw on Hampstead Heath, and the flowers are in long sprays that are said to smell strongly of frying mushrooms.
Incidentally, the sweet chestnut catkins bear both male and female parts, with the female flowers at the bottom and the male flowers at the top. It’s the female flowers that will turn into chestnuts if pollinated. The tree is self-incompatible, which means that it can’t fertilise itself – the tree somehow recognises that the pollen grain from the male part of the plant is of the same genetic make-up as that of the stigma (female organ) of the receiving plant, and stops the process of fertilization. This prevents inbreeding, and is considered one of the most important mechanisms for ensuring the genetic diversity and health of a population. Who knew? Certainly not me. I am astonished pretty much every day.
Now, back to the sweet chestnut fruit itself. This is the quintessential chestnut that you smell cooking on braziers all over London at Christmas time, and very tasty the nuts are too. Apparently Roman soldiers were given chestnut porridge before going into battle, and look how successful they were! The French have a particular fondness for chestnuts (marrons) – they turn up as sweets (marrons glacé) and in Mont Blanc, a dish made from chestnut puree fashioned into vermicelli with whipped cream. Italy and Switzerland both claim the Mont Blanc as ‘their’ dessert, in much the same way that hummous is claimed by at least eight different Mediterranean and Middle-Eastern countries. I think that travelling the countries involved and sampling the dish in each region could easily be turned into a gastronomic travel book and if anyone wants to offer me a book deal to do such a thing I am open to offers once the pandemic is over.
I thought that marrons glacé were indisputably French, but apparently Northern Italy, a major sweet chestnut-growing region, also claims them.
Furthermore, in Corsica polenta (or pulenta as it’s called) is made from chestnut flour, and the Corsicans also make sweet chestnut beer. Chestnut flour has no gluten, and so is useful for people suffering from coeliac disease.
Historically, sweet chestnut has also been used for timber – like other trees in the Beech family, such as hornbeam, it responds well to coppicing, and produces a good crop every 12 to 30 years. In his book ‘Woodlands’, Oliver Rackham describes how there are possible remnants of Roman chestnut orchards on the edge of the Forest of Dean, but it seems that in the UK chestnut timber was relegated to uses such as hop poles and included in the wattle-and-daub walls of medieval houses. Nonetheless, as noted earlier, if not coppiced these trees can reach an immense size and age. One ancient sweet tree in South Gloucestershire, the Tortworth Chestnut, was called ‘the old Chestnut of Tortworth’ in records from 1150 AD, indicating that it’s over a thousand years old.
Medicinally, it’s the leaves of the sweet chestnut that have been used, in particular to cure whooping cough and other ‘irritable and excitable conditions of the respiratory organs’. The belief in the efficacy of the leaves as a treatment for coughs lasted until at least the Second World War, according to the Plant Lore website. Another use for the leaves, also recorded on Plant Lore, was by children playing at running a home – if you strip away the flesh from the leaves they apparently look exactly like fish bones, just the thing for dinner!
And finally, a poem. This is by Thomas James, who was born in 1946 and committed suicide in 1974, a year after this poem was written. I’ve read it over and over, and I see more with every reading, but it still refuses to be nailed down, which is, I think, how it should be with a poem. See what you think, readers.
“The Chestnut Branch” by Thomas James
There is something to be said for darkness
After all. My mother’s hands
Have been full of the dark all winter.
They are hollow boats not going anyplace.
They only pull the blinds
Or gesticulate at some ineradicable star.
Now the backyard unfolds its lacy pleats,
And I bring in a white branch
Because love is the lesson for tomorrow.
Will nothing cure the brightness in these streets?
A million strange petals touch
The panes. Is it a gift of snow?
Is it making up for lack of bandages?
Is it cold, is it hot–
Will it keep, should we put it on ice?
Should my sister sew it into bridal clothes?
Is it lingerie, or just a sheet
To pull across a used-up face?
Will it brighten up the arms of chairs?
It moves. It hurts my eyes.
I am not accustomed to so much light.
It is like waking after twenty years
To find your wife gone and the trees
Too big, strange white growths that flank the street.
Photo One by Viascos, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Two By Honio – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8630026
Photo Three By "passamanerie" / flaviab – https://www.flickr.com/photos/flaviab/2013678423/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4884657
Photo Four By Clément Bucco-Lechat – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22857997
Photo Five By Aliasnamesake – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=107161562