Sweet chestnut – late into flower but a beautiful specimen
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Tree Of The Month – A Monumental Tree, Chestnut Number 1001 in The Byes.
Nat King Cole sang about 'Chestnuts roasting on an open fire' and Dickens had them sputtering noisily at the end of the Cratchit's Christmas feast, but you are unlikely to get yours from the large sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa) that stands in the Lawns area of The Byes.
The English climate is rarely warm enough to produce chestnuts worth eating and we have to import them, about 1,600 tonnes last year, mainly from Portugal and France.
At 24m tall and with a trunk girth of 5.5m, Chestnut 1001 is probably 200-250 years old which seems ancient, but chestnuts usually have a life span of 6-800 years.
There is a very old chestnut in the grounds of Powys in Station Road which might be as much as that and there are several huge chestnut trees in the park at Killerton.
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The Hundred Horse Chestnut in Sicily, so called because the Queen of Aragon and her retinue of 100 knights are supposed to have sheltered from a storm under its canopy, is supposed to be between two and four thousand years old
Young chestnuts have smooth, grey bark but this becomes deeply fissured with a distinct twist as the tree ages. The leaves are up to 20cm long, with toothed margins and prominent veins.
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Chestnuts are one of the last trees to come into leaf and the flowers do not appear until July. They come in long, yellow catkins which are said to smell of fried mushrooms. The catkins consist of mostly male flowers with female flowers at the base.
The flowers are rich in pollen and nectar and are a good food source for bees which pollinate the female flowers. The chestnuts themselves are shiny, red-brown nuts that are released from their green, spiny cases in October and they are a great favourite with red squirrels, as well as Nat King Cole.
Although they are sometimes called Spanish Chestnuts (castanets are named after the chestnut because of the similarity in shape) the trees originated around the eastern end of the Mediterranean and were probably introduced to Britain by the Romans.
They are now fully naturalised, with large areas of coppiced woodland in southern England, especially in areas with sandy soils, and the leaves provide food for a number of moth larvae.
Chestnut trees have been cultivated for thousands of years, for the edible nuts and the good quality timber. The Romans ground the chestnuts to make a cooking flour, but the ancient Greeks grew Chestnuts for their timber mainly. The timber is light and strong and has a number of uses, furniture, structural and, because it coppices easily to produce poles which are rot resistant, it is commonly used as fence palings. Large boards of Chestnut have an attractive grain and it has been used as a cheaper substitute for Oak by coffin makers. Apparently, it is excellent as fuel for pizza ovens and a lot of the timber is used for this purpose in Italy.
As with so many of our familiar trees, chestnuts are under threat from a fungal disease. Chestnut Blight (Cryphonectria parasitica) originated in Asia and almost totally wiped out North America's Chestnuts (a different species) in the 19th and 20th centuries. It was found in England in 2011, probably introduced on imported saplings and there have been several outbreaks in Devon and Dorset. The fungus causes canker in the bark and if this girdles a branch, it kills it.
There is now an import restriction on chestnut saplings and the disease does not seem to spread as easily in English Chestnuts as it did in America because of an association with a virus which seems to subdue the fungus, so there is some hope for the future. Perhaps one plus to global warming will be roasting home grown chestnuts in years to come, every cloud has a silver lining.
Ed Dolphin is treasurer of Sidmouth Arboretum, visit the Arboretum website https://sidmoutharboretum.org.uk to find out more about the trees of Sidmouth.
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