Sweet Chestnut – Castanea sativa
Other Names: Chestnut, European Chestnut, Portuguese Chestnut, Spanish Chestnut, Marron (French).
Distinctive Characteristics: Sweet Chestnuts are large, deciduous, broadly columnar trees that are well known for their longevity and large, edible nuts encased in prickly husks.
Distribution: Native to Southern Europe and Asia Minor; introduced to Britain by the Romans.
Ecosystem: Deciduous woodlands with English Oak, Sessile Oak, Downy Oak, Turkey Oak, Holm Oak, European Beech, Sycamore, and White Fir. Elevation: between about 650 and 4,000 ft. (200–1,200 m).
Maximum Age: Estimated at over 2,000 years.
Maximum Height and Girth: 150 ft. (46 m) in height; 64 ft. (19.5 m) in circumference.
The world record for the oldest known specimen (over 2,000 years) as well as the "Greatest Tree Girth Ever" is The Hundred Horse Chestnut (Castagno dei Cento Cavalli) on Mt. Etna, Italy. When measured in 1780, its center was hollowed and had split into a ring of separate trees, measuring at a supposed circumference of 190 ft. (58 m) What is left of the deteriorated ring of three tree fragments is 52 ft. (16 m) in circumference.
Animal Community: The nuts are an important food source for wildlife such as squirrels, wild boar, and jays, and are used as fodder for domesticated animals.
Medicine: The leaves and bark have been used to treat inflammation, hemorrhaging from childbirth, hemorrhoids, rheumatism, fever, congestion, and nerve pain. Decoctions of the bark and fruit were used to treat chronic digestive disorders and improve bile flow (Russia). A shampoo was made from infusing leaves and fruit husks.
Food: Sweet Chestnuts are in the same family (Fagaceae) as other nut producers such as oaks, beeches, and chinquapins. Before the introduction of wheat, chestnuts (along with acorns) were the major source of carbohydrates for European and Mediterranean cultures, and they remained
a staple food for certain regions where grains would not grow well. They fell out of popularity in the 1800s, when they gained a reputation as "poor people's food."
Tools and Objects: In Britain, Sweet Chestnuts were historically and are still used for coppicing (the repeated harvesting of wood from stumps that then regrow usefully straight from sprouts).
Modern Uses: In Europe today, the starchy, carbohydrate-rich nuts are traditionally eaten roasted at Christmastime and are also used in candies, cakes, and puddings. In addition, chestnuts can be used to make a type of flour and soup thickener. The traditional Corsican variety of polenta is still made with ground chestnuts. It is also made into a beer. Because of its high tannin levels, chestnut wood is rot-resistant and has traditionally been used to make outdoor objects such as posts, fencing, and stakes. It is also prized for making furniture, barrels, and roof beams.
Threats and Conservation: Not threatened.