As I walked through Sheffield Botanical Gardens today I couldn't resist stopping to photograph this magnificent sweet chestnut tree. Its autumn foliage seemed to be ablaze in the afternoon sunshine.
Sweet Chestnut, Castanea sativa
(Sheffield Botanical Gardens)
The sweet chestnut is one of my favourite trees. It's a species with a very distinctive character. Mature trees rapidly develop a spreading, contorted shape which makes them look ancient even when they are still in their prime. Long spiral fissures in the bark add to this impression by giving chestnut trunks a twisted and tortured appearance.
I'm always surprised by how quickly the fruits of the sweet chestnut develop. Unlike most other trees in Britain, the flowers do not appear until well after midsummer but, even so, the nuts are already beginning to ripen by late August. In northern England it is fairly unusual to find chestnuts that are big enough to be worth eating. Having said that, the specimens in Sheffield Botanical Gardens produced a bumper crop this year.
According to Cassell's Trees of Britain and Northern Europe, the sweet chestnut originated from the Mediterranean coastal region but was spread far and wide by the Roman Empire. Oliver Rackham confirms that the species was introduced to the British Isles during the Roman occupation, probably for its nuts. Chestnut porridge is said to have been part of the Roman military diet, which may explain why the trees were planted all over the empire.
Writing in the 17th century, John Evelyn described chestnuts as "a lusty, and masculine food for Rustics". Perhaps I am being naive, but I'm not entirely sure what he meant by 'masculine'!