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The Sweet Chestnut

Castanea sativa

Other names: Spanish Chestnut, European Chestnut

General Description / Botany

Native to the deciduous woodlands of southern Europe, western Asia and north Africa, and a member of the same family as oak and beech, the sweet chestnut is thought to have been introduced to the British Isles by the Romans.

Today, the sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa) – regarded as an ‘honorary native’ - is found commonly throughout Britain in woods and copses, especially in parts of southern England, where it is still managed to form large areas of coppice.

Popular as landscaping tees, especially in the 18th & 19th centuries, sweet chestnuts have also been planted widely in parkland and on large estates, where some of our largest and oldest specimens are to be found.

A medium-sized to large deciduous tree, growing to a height of around 30- 35m, and developing a broad crown, its distinguishing features are as follows:

Leaves: oblong, glossy and with prominent parallel veins, each ending in a spiny ‘tooth’.
Leaves are possibly longer than those of any other wild tree in the UK.

Bark: when young a smooth silvery to purplish grey, but becoming dark brown and deeply fissured in old trees, often with a net pattern, and with deep furrows running spirally in both directions up the trunk.

Flowers & Fruit: Flowers take the form of upright catkins, 10-20cm long, developing into clusters of distinctive sharp-spined, yellow-green husks that split open in autumn to reveal two or more shiny red-brown nuts. (Some commercial cultivars only produce one nut).
The sweet chestnut is a long-lived tree which can reach huge stature and girth, often developing burrs and becoming hollow in advanced old age.

Spectacular, centuries-old specimens of enormous size can be found in Britain and throughout central, western and southern Europe.

One of the most famous ancient sweet chestnuts in Europe, still growing in Sicily, though only a remnant of its former self, is known as ‘The Tree of One hundred Horses’. Said to be the stoutest tree ever recorded, it measured an astonishing 204 feet (68m) in girth in 1770 and is thought to be between 2 and 4,000 years old.

In the UK, the best known ancient sweet chestnut is the Tortworth Chestnut, in Gloucestershire. Written records of this remarkable tree go back to the 12th century and it was said to have been a boundary tree to the Tortworth estate at about this time. Although only part of it remains today, many of the branches of its huge twisted trunk have rooted to become trees themselves, giving the appearance of a small wood.

History / Uses in Britain

Records show that by medieval times sweet chestnuts were being grown in various parts of southern England where the trees are still abundant today.

Oliver Rackham notes that in the Forest of Dean chestnuts were valued in the 12th century for their nuts and possibly for their timber.

Timber / Wood Uses

Today, sweet chestnuts are grown commercially in the UK only for their timber.

Sweet chestnut is a vigorous, fast-growing tree, and responds well to coppicing – producing a good crop every 12-30 years, depending on intended use and growing conditions. It is often planted alongside oak standards, as an under-story tree.

In the past, sweet chestnuts were planted and coppiced in large quantities in south east England for charcoal manufacture, which was used extensively in metal working

Kent and Sussex are the major areas for chestnut coppice today and thousands of acres (some 18,000 has according to BHIP see below) are managed commercially.

Young sweet chestnut wood is hard, strong and rich in tannins which make it very durable in the ground and suitable for outdoor use in general, requiring no additional preservatives.

For this reason coppiced chestnut has been and still is much used for stakes, gateposts, post and rail and paling fencing, which will last for twenty years or more, and for outdoor cladding (shingles) on buildings. It has also been used to make the stakes used in vineyards to support vines and also hop poles – a use going back to the 1550s with the development of hop farming in the UK.

Light in colour, sweet chestnut wood is used for furniture making, and some construction purposes, but has not been used traditionally in large pieces as old wood tends to split, warp and become brittle. The relatively recent uses use of high strength glues however, mean that longer length pieces are now available for cladding, decking and other building purposes.

It Italy chestnut wood is used to make barrels for ageing balsamic vinegar.

The bark of sweet chestnut wood has been an important source of the vegetable tannin used for tanning leather in many European countries, including the UK, for many years.
UK supplies are likely to come from Italy.

The handles and frames of traditional Sussex trug baskets are made of sweet chestnut.

Sweet chestnut makes a good fuel wood, although it tends to spit on open fires.

(NB The British and Irish Hardwood Improvement Programme (BIHIP) which was set up in 1991 to promote and improve the quality of UK hardwoods – has a group dedicated to the sweet chestnut. Contact: sweetchestnut@bihip.org)

Food Uses

The sweet chestnut is well known today for its delicious edible seeds: sweet chestnuts.

Widely consumed across Southern Europe, Turkey and southwestern and eastern Asia since ancient times, it has been a staple food (notably in parts of Italy and on Corsica) for millennia, largely replacing cereals where these would not grow well, if at all.

Roasted or ground into flour, sweet chestnuts formed an important part of the Roman diet and it is reported that Alexander the Great and the Romans planted chestnut trees across Europe during their various campaigns. It is said that Roman soldiers were given a porridge made from sweet chestnuts before going into battle.

The Greek army is said to have survived their retreat from Asia Minor in 401-399 B.C. thanks to their stores of chestnuts.

Unlike most commercial nuts which contain relatively large amounts of protein, sweet chestnuts consist of up to 70% starch, between 2 and 5 % fat and only 2 to 4 % protein.

Covered in a pithy, astringent skin (pellicle) whilst raw, they tend to be eaten roasted or boiled and may be processed to produce flour, bread, stuffing, fritters, puddings and cakes, as well a coffee substitute and thickener for soups, paste, puree and the famous ‘marrons glaces’ of France (chestnuts candied in sugar syrup and glazed). A sugar and an oil can be extracted from sweet chestnuts.

In Corsica, where sweet chestnuts were once used as a currency and are still a staple food, they are made into a type of polenta as well as a local beer.

Italy is a major exporter of sweet chestnuts to the UK.

In the UK, sweet chestnuts used to be carried by street sellers in winter and sold roasted on street corners. These can still be found occasionally today, but most seem to be eaten boiled or roasted, or in the form of poultry stuffing, as part of our traditional Christmas fare.

Many varieties of sweet chestnut are cultivated today across Europe, and the nuts produced by trees in Italy, France and Spain for example, tend to be larger than those produced by chestnuts growing in Britain. In our cooler, temperate climate, many nuts fail to develop fully. It has been suggested that this may be why sweet chestnuts were often fed to pigs in the UK in the past.

Other Uses

In parts of Europe, ground sweet chestnuts were once used to make starch for laundry use and to whiten linen.

Chestnut leaves and bark are said to have an astringent, anti-inflammatory, expectorant and tonic properties.

Infusions of the leaves have been used as a remedy for whooping cough and to treat other irritable conditions of the respiratory system

The leaves have also been used to in the treatment of diarrhea, rheumatism, to ease lower back pains and to relieve stiff muscles and joints

A shampoo can be made from an infusion of leaves and fruit husks.