Plant 157

Castanea sativa Mill. (Fagaceae)


Sweet chestnut

The Romans named this oak-related tree Castanea from Castanum, a small town in Thessaly, where it grew in abundance. The name sativa derives from the Latin, meaning cultivated, whilst an early English name for the tree was Chesten-nut.

For centuries, the sweet chestnut has been cultivated for its timber and edible fruits. Native to southern Europe and North Africa, the Romans are credited with the introduction of, this now naturalised tree, to Britain. However, it was the Greeks who brought the tree to Italy from its native habitats in Asia Minor. Chestnut charcoal has been found in British archaeological sites which date prior to the Roman period, but it remains unclear whether the tree was growing in Britain or had been imported as timber.

This naturalised tree has played a vital role in many aspects of our industrial and rural histories. Sussex and Kent was the epicentre of a vibrant coppice industry; by the early 1200s there were significant areas of chestnut coppice growing in the area around Canterbury Cathedral. Several centuries later, and on into the nineteenth century, the industry expanded to meet the demand for hop poles as the brewing industry grew. Although pole production was the main use, chestnut wood peels well to make plain veneers, and when used for cask staves, the wood improves the colour, sweetness and longevity of wine. In its hey-day, the chestnut charcoal industry also provided fuel for hop kilns and iron smelting. Since 1905, cleft chestnut paling fences have been the major coppice product.

Apart from its role as a timber tree, the tree's aesthetic value has been notable across parks and gardens alike. No tree gives greater distinction than a finely developed chestnut. Forming a large tree with a domed crown at maturity, it has deeply fissured, helically-twisting bark. The heavy, smooth branches support the stout and angular twigs which are distinctively marked with ridges. Fast-grown shoots have very distinct cream-coloured lenticels, and as the growing season progresses, a greyish bloom develops up the current year's growth on the stem. The leaves are tough, with a sawblade-like leaf margin and can reach 20 cm in length. Long, creamy-white male catkins and mixed male and female catkins open in July, giving off an unpleasant aroma which attracts pollinating insects. The fruits, which ripen in October, are the familiar glossy-brown chestnuts; up to four chestnuts are produced inside clusters of spiny burrs.

Further reading

Bean WJ 1970. Trees and Shrubs Hardy in the British Isles. Vol. 1. John Murray.

Ben Jones