Features and characters of the individual
Chestnut trees: facts and stories
Chestnut trees are a symbol of longevity. They have existed on earth for 20 million years, surviving several ice ages.
Celts used to worship these large, hard-wearing trees, seeing them like warriors covered in armour with sharp spears pointing outwards. Their foliage is abundant and dense, with the leaves having a long oval shape (lanceolate) with pointed ends (acuminate) and deep, pointed serrations around the edges. Celts would pause at the foot of a chestnut tree to seek inspiration and gather their courage before heading into battle.
One of the oldest chestnut trees on the planet can be found at the foot of Mount Etna on Sicily. It is estimated to be over 3000 years old. This famous tree is called ‘Castagno dei cento cavalli’ (‘hundred-horse chestnut’). In the 16th century, this tree was said to have provided shelter to Joanna of Aragon and one hundred of her men on horseback. This tree is hollow in the middle, with several large trunks growing from the same roots to create a sort of circular enclosure (tens of metres in diameter).
Did you know?
Sweet chestnuts have been a staple of human diets since well before the arrival of the potato in Europe. Our ancestors ate chestnuts for several centuries, which helped them to avoid famine and certain winter diseases.
Chestnuts are one of the most complete foodstuffs, providing plenty of nutrients for our bodies. They are starchy and high in fibre, and they are easy to digest as they don’t contain gluten. They also contain 5–7% protein, around 14% slow-release carbohydrates, and only around 2% fats.
And that’s not all! Chestnuts are a source of many vitamins and minerals. The vitamin C content of chestnuts is comparable to lemons! They also contain several B vitamins, and are rich in potassium, phosphorus, calcium and magnesium. Small amounts of iron, copper, zinc and other metals are also present. The nutritional benefits of chestnuts are worth rediscovering, especially when it comes to boosting our digestive health and immune systems.
The benefits of sweet chestnut trees
Chestnuts are definitely forest trees above all. They can grow to a huge size. This means that they are rarely planted as street trees, so that there isn’t the risk of them falling onto people or cars. They are more suitable for planting in large gardens or parks. Wherever they grow, they have a decorative effect thanks to their magnificent structure and colouring. They also set the rhythm of the seasons.
With their very ample and dense foliage, they can produce large quantities of oxygen. They’re able to purify the air and absorb a lot of air pollution and CO2 over time, storing it in their wood. The very dark shade cast by the tree creates a milder climate in the immediate area during summer.
They are also allies when it comes to biodiversity. The city’s classic range of trees is enriched by their presence. They also have very abundant blossoms with plenty of nectar for honey bees to produce delicious honey. The tree therefore provides nutrition for a range of species: from insects to small animals to large mammals!
How to recognise a sweet chestnut tree
large (15–25cm), shaped like a long, pointed spear (lanceolate); distinct serrated leaf edges
shiny dark green in spring and summer; orangey brown in autumn; and still visible for part of winter before falling from the tree (deciduous)
burr; yellow-green spiky capsule with nut/seed inside
catkins; gold-coloured and fragrant; with nectar that is used for making honey (melliferous)
grey-brown to dark brown; heavily cracked (more prominent with age)
Specifics about this tree
This tree has historical value. It is one of the surviving trees from when Ixelles was still countryside. It witnessed the whole hill transform into a residential and commercial neighbourhood.
In the 1930s, this chestnut tree could already be seen growing at the entrance of a large property’s grounds (see the images from Bruciel in the gallery). Back then, on the opposite side of the road, there were large cultivated fields, but this rural landscape was turned into tennis courts between the late 60s and early 70s. In the same period, a few metres away from the tree, a huge retail lot was planned and developed.
This tree remains as a guardian for this private residential close, set back slightly from the main road. During its time here, it has brushed shoulders with several generations of residents. It is highly likely that the tree has been kept in place all this time because it helps to maintain privacy for the close. It is also a beautiful tree, forming a pretty dome of welcoming greenery. When it blossoms, the magnificent golden flowers are wonderfully fragrant. Then in autumn, the foliage all turns red. It’s not hard to see why the residents couldn’t live without it!
This tree serves as a reminder that chestnuts and humans have a long history together. This relationship is maintained well in some places. If the residents of this close continue to cherish this chestnut tree, it should be able to live for a few centuries more. Hopefully it manages to escape one particular disease that has been increasingly affecting chestnut trees since 2014: Cryphonectria parasitica, a fungus originating in Asia. Sweet chestnut trees aren’t able to defend themselves against this fungus very well.
(Story and photos created by Priscille Cazin- Sylvolutions)
This portrait is:
- Enriched with an illustration from the Belgian Federal State Collection on permanent loan to the Meise Botanical Garden.
- An initiative of Christos Doulkeridis, Mayor of Ixelles , Audrey Lhoest, portfolio holder for Environment, Green Spaces and Planting, and Tourism and the Ixelles Communal executive