Chestnut, sweet (Castanea sativa)

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Sweet chestnut is a deciduous broadleaf tree native to southern Europe, western Asia and north Africa.

Common name: sweet chestnut

Scientific name: Castanea sativa
Family: Fagaceae

UK provenance: non-native

Interesting fact: the Romans ground sweet chestnuts into a flour or coarse meal.

What does sweet chestnut look like?

Overview: mature sweet chestnut trees grow to 35m and can live for up to 700 years. The bark is grey-purple and smooth, which develops vertical fissures with age. The twigs are purple-brown and buds are plum, red-brown and oval in shape.

Leaves: oblong and toothed with a pointed tip, and feature around 20 pairs of prominent parallel veins.

Flowers: long, yellow catkins of mostly male flowers, with female flowers at the base. Sweet chestnut is monoecious, meaning both male and female flowers are found on the same tree.

Fruits: after pollination by insects, female flowers develop into shiny red-brown fruits wrapped in a green, spiky case. The trees begin to bear fruit when they are about 25 years old.

Look out for: teeth around the edges of leaves are widely spaced. The seeds develop inside the prickly green seed cases.

Could be confused with: the nuts are similar to those of the horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) but are smaller and found in clusters.

Identified in winter by: the bark has fissures which spiral around the tree.

Where to find sweet chestnut

The sweet chestnut is thought to have been introduced to the British Isles by the Romans but today it can be 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. 

Value to wildlife

The flowers provide an important source of nectar an pollen to bees and other insects, and red squirrels eat the nuts. A large number of micro-moths feed on the leaves and nuts.

Mythology and symbolism

There is very little mythology surrounding the sweet chestnut in the UK, probably because it was introduced. However, the ancient Greeks dedicated the sweet chestnut to Zeus and its botanical name castanea comes from Castonis, a Town in Thessaly in Greece where the tree was grown for its nuts.

How we use sweet chestnut

Sweet chestnut timber is similar to oak but is more lightweight and easier to work. It has a straight grain when young but this spirals in older trees. It can be used for carpentry, joinery and furniture. In south east England sweet chestnut is coppiced to produce poles.

The chestnuts can be roasted and used in a variety of recipes, including stuffing.

Threats

Sweet chestnut has been found to be susceptible to fungal diseases. Chestnut blight has recently arrived in the UK, which causes bark cankers and can lead to dieback and death. Young trees can also suffer from squirrel damage. 

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