The Horse Chestnut is a native of the mountain
regions of Greece, Bulgaria, Iran and Northern
India, and is believed to have been introduced
to Britain late in the sixteenth century. It is
not a tree that will be found in the woodlands,
or even by the wayside; yet it constantly greets
the rambler in the public parks and gardens, where
by contrast it exhibits itself as the grandest
of all flowering trees. Though the stout, cylindrical
bole is short, its erect trunk towers to a height
of eighty or a hundred feet, supporting the massive
The stout branches take an upward direction at
first, then stretch outward and curve downwards,
though in winter, when relieved of the weight
of foliage, their extremities curl sharply upward,
and the great buds, in spring, are almost erect.
These brown buds, with their numerous wraps and
liberal coating of resin, afford considerable
interest in early spring. They gradually swell
and polish comes upon them through the daily melting
of their varnish under the influence of the sunshine.
Then the outer scales fall flat, the upper parts
show green and loose; there is a perceptible lengthening
of the shoot, which leaves a space between those
outer wraps and the folded leaves. Next the leaflets
separate and assume a horizontal position as they
expand. The lengthening of the shoot brings the
incipient flower-spike into view.
The leaves are almost circular, but broken up,
finger-fashion, into, usually, seven-toothed leaflets
of different sizes, but to prevent overcrowding
their neighbours the portion nearest the leaf-stalk
has taken a wedge-shape. The large size of these
leaves – as much as eighteen inches across
– leads the non-botanical to regard the
leaflets as being full leaves. On emerging from
the bud the leaves are seen to be covered with
down, but as they expand this is thrown off.
The flowers consist of a bell-shaped calyx with
five lobes, supporting four or five separate petals,
pure white, but splashed and dotted with crimson
and yellow towards the base of the upper ones,
to indicate the way to the nectar glands. There
are seven curved stamens, and in their midst a
longer curved style proceeding from a roundish
ovary with three cells. In each cell there are
two seed-eggs, but as a rule only one egg in two
of the cells develops into a “nut”.
The ovary develops into a large fleshy blur, with
short stout spines, which splits into three valves
when the dark-red glossy seed are ripe. Though
horses will not eat this bitter fruit, cattle,
deer and sheep are fond of it.
The growth of the tree is very rapid, and consequently
the timber is soft and of no value where durability
is required. Still, its even grain and the ability
to take a high polish makes it useful for indoor
work, such as cabinet-making, etc.
The tree begins to produce fruit about its twentieth
year, and continues to do so nearly every year.
Its age is estimated as about two hundred years.
The bark, at first smooth, breaks into irregular
scales, and in old trees a twist may be developed.
The Red-flowered Horse Chestnut (Aesculus carnea)
is a smaller and less vigorous tree. It is believed
to be a garden hybrid between A. Hippocastanum
and A. Pavia that made its appearance about 1820.