Sweet Chestnut often gets mixed up with Horse Chestnut and they are actually very different trees. Firstly, it is Horse Chestnut that is the 'Conker' tree and not Sweet Chestnut. Secondly, you can eat the fruit of Sweet Chestnut whereas the fruit of Horse Chestnut (conkers) is poisonous. I've not come across many Sweet Chestnut trees in Exeter which is a shame as it's a very pretty tree when in flower.
Sweet chestnut is a deciduous broad-leaf tree native to southern Europe, western Asia and north Africa. They are fast-growing and large deciduous trees with long, toothed leaves and conspicuous yellow catkins followed by spiny fruits. Sometimes they are large shrubs.
Mature sweet chestnut trees can grow to 35 metres 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. The leaves are oblong and toothed with a pointed tip, and feature around 20 pairs of prominent parallel veins.
The buds are plum, red-brown and oval in shape and the twigs are purple-brown in colour
The bark is fairly smooth and is grey / purple in colour. As it matures it develops vertical fissures
Sweet chestnut is monoecious, meaning both male and female flowers are found on the same tree. The male flowers are long curly yellow catkins and the female flowers are small, green and look a bit prickly. They are pollinated by the wind, although several sources do advise they are insect pollinated. Quite often the flowers are covered with flies and bees so it does look like the flowers are pollinated by both wind and insects.
The nuts Sweet chestnut are edible to humans and can be roasted and used in a variety of recipes, including stuffing for poultry, cake fillings, nut roasts and similar dishes. The Romans ground sweet chestnuts into a flour or coarse meal. Sweet chestnuts are a rich source of vitamins C (the only nut that is) and B, and minerals including magnesium, potassium and iron. Their high level of starch is similar to that of wheat and twice as high as the potato.
OTHER USEFUL LINKS
- Sweet chestnut is a deciduous broad-leaf tree native to southern Europe, western Asia and north Africa
- Sweet Chestnut is not related to Horse Chestnut - they are different families
- The Romans ground sweet chestnuts into a flour or coarse meal
- 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
- The leaves are oblong and toothed with a pointed tip, and feature around 20 pairs of prominent parallel veins
- Sweet chestnut is monoecious, meaning both male and female flowers are found on the same tree
- The male flowers are more towards the top of the tree and the female nearer the bottom
- Flowers cannot be self-pollinated
- The trees begin to bear fruit when they are about 25 years old
- After pollination the female flowers develop into shiny red-brown fruits wrapped in a green, spiky case
- The sweet chestnut is thought to have been introduced to the British Isles by the Romans
- Found throughout Britain in woods and copses, especially in parts of southern England
- 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
- 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
- It is said that Roman soldiers were given a porridge made from sweet chestnuts before going into battle
- Chestnut trees produce more fruit when they are subjected to lower temperatures during the winter
- Unlike old trees, young trees are highly sensitive to frost
- 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
- They all belong to the family Fagaceae, the same as Beech and Oak
- It was used as a substitute for potato in areas where potato couldn't be grown
- In 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
- 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
- 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
- In Corsica, 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 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
- 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
- Also the famous ‘marrons glaces’ of France (chestnuts candied in sugar syrup and glazed
- A sugar and an oil can be extracted from sweet chestnuts
- The nuts produced by trees in Italy, France and Spain tend to be larger than those produced by chestnuts growing in Britain. This is due to our cooler and more temperate climate so many of the nuts fail to develop fully
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