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The Sweet Chestnut

UK Garden Centre - Information about the Sweet Chestnut tree

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Family Fagaceae
Castanea sativa

Until about the middle of the last century the Chestnut was generally regarded as a genuine native of the British Isles. It is now agreed that its real home is in Asia Minor and Greece, whence it was introduced to Italy in very remote times, and has since spread over most of temperate Europe.
In suitable situations the Chestnut is of larger proportions and greater length of life than the Oak. In the South of England it will attain a height of from sixty to eighty feet in fifty or sixty years, and if growing in deep, porous loam it builds up an erect massive column. Under less suitable conditions the undivided trunk is little more than ten feet long; then it divides off into several huge limbs, and so the general character of the tree is altered. The branches have a horizontal and downward habit of growth, the extremities of the lower ones often being but little above the earth.
The fine elliptical leaves are nine or ten inches in length and of a rich green colour. Their edges are cut into long pointed teeth. Towards the autumn they pale to light yellow, and then deepen into gold on their way to the final brown of the fallen leaf, which, by the way, is a great enricher of the soil.
The flowers, though individually small and inconspicuous, are rather striking, from their association in cylindrical yellow catkins, about six inches long, which hang from the axils of the leaves. The catkins arising from the axils of the lower leaves of the twigs are composed entirely of male flowers. Those arising from the upper leaves consist of both sexes. The free end of this type consists of male flowers, each with a number of stamens enclosed in a calyx of five or six green leaves.
The female flowers, nearer the base of the catkin, are two or three together in a prickly four-lobed involucre, and consist each of a calyx closely investing a tapering ovary, whose summit bears from five to eight radiating stigmas, the number corresponding with the cells into which the ovary is divided. Each cell contains two seed-eggs, but as a rule only one in each flower develops, and ultimately the involucre entirely surrounds the seed cluster with a hedgehog-like coat in which the nuts are contained when ripe. Then it splits open and discloses the two or three glossy brown nuts. The Chestnut is in flower from May to July, and the nuts drop in October. They form an important article of food in Southern Europe, where they are produced in abundance.
The trees begin to bear when about twenty-five years old, and from thence on to the fiftieth or sixtieth year the timber is at its best. The young wood is covered with smooth brown bark, becoming grey later, and its surface splits into longitudinal fissures. In older trees the fissures have a distinct spiral twist, which gives the tree the appearance of having been wrenched round by some mighty force. The average age of the Chestnut is about five hundred years, but there have been in this country many trees that were much older.


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