Chestnut, SweetBotanical Name: Castanea vesca (GÆRTN.)
Family: N.O. Cupuliferae
Synonyms: Fagus Castanea. Sardian Nut. Jupiter's Nut. Husked Nut. Spanish Chestnut.
Parts Used: Leaves and fruit.
The Sweet Chestnut (Castanea vesca or Fagus castanea) has been with some reason described as the most magnificent tree which reaches perfection in Europe.
It grows so freely in this country that it has been by some authorities considered a true native, its claim resting chiefly upon the use of what was for centuries supposed to be Chestnut timber in very ancient buildings, such as the roof of Westminster Hall and the Parliament House of Edinburgh. It is now, however, recognized that the wood of Chestnut loses all virtue of durability when over fifty years old, and though the tree is of very quick growth, the beams in question could not have been grown in fifty years, so it has been proved that they are of Durmast Oak, which closely resembles Chestnut both in grain and colour.
It is now generally accepted that the Chestnut is really a native of sunnier skies than ours, but was probably introduced into England by the Romans. Before then it was introduced into Europe from Sardis, in Asia Minor, whence the fruit was called the 'Sardian Nut.' From Italy and Greece it seems to have spread itself over the greater part of temperate Europe, ripening its fruit and sowing itself wherever the vine flourishes.
In France, Italy and Spain it attains a great size. Theophrastus called it the 'Euboean Nut' from Eubcea, now Negropont, where it was very abundant.
The famous Tortworth Chestnut, in Gloucestershire, was a landmark in the boundary records compiled in the reign of John, and was already known as the Great Chestnut of Tortworth in the days of Stephen. This enormous tree at 5 feet from the ground measured over 50 feet in circumference in 1720, and was still flourishing some years ago. Many of the trees forming the vast Chestnut forests on the slopes of Mount Etna are said to be even larger. In the Mediterranean region the Chestnut flourishes luxuriantly.
Description: The tree grows very erect when planted among others, is firmly set and massive, the trunk columnar, tapering little, upstanding to the summit. When standing alone, it spreads its branches firmly on every side. Its bark is dark grey in colour, thick and deeply furrowed: the furrows run longitudinally, but in age tend to twist, often then presenting almost the appearance of thick strands in a great cable.
The handsome, narrow leaves are large and glossy, somewhat leathery in texture, 7 to 9 inches in length, about 2 1/2 inches broad, tapering to a point at each end, the margins with distant, sharp-pointed, spreading teeth, arranged alternately on the twig. They remain on the trees late in autumn, turning to a golden colour, and are then very beautiful, especially as they are not so liable to be insecteaten as are the leaves of the oak. They make useful litter.
The flowers appear after the leaves, in late spring or early summer, and are arranged in long catkins of two kinds. Some of the catkins bear only male flowers, each with eight stamens, and these mature first, the ripe pollen having a rather sickly odour. Other catkins have both kinds of flowers, the majority of them being pollen-bearing, but having also, near the twig from which they spring, the female or fruit-producing flowers in clusters, two or three fiowers together in a four-lobed prickly involucre, which later grows completely together and becomes the thick, leathery hull which covers the ripening seeds. The fruit hangs in clusters of these forbidding-looking burs - the brown nuts, which are roundish in shape, drawn up to a point and flattened on one side, being thus enclosed in a kind of casket protected by spines .
Uses: In this country, as a rule not more than one of these nuts matures, and as they rarely come to great perfection, nearly all of those used are imported, mostly from Spain whence they are also called Spanish Chestnuts. The larger and better sorts, called Marones, are the produce of Italy, France, Switzerland and southern Germany, in which countries, especially in southern France and Italy, it forms an important article of diet, constituting in Italy a considerable proportion of the food of the peasantry.
They make an excellent stuffing for turkey, also roast pheasant, which is one of the few forms in which they are eaten here, apart from simply being roasted. Evelyn spoke of them as 'delicacies for princes and a lusty and masculine food for rusticks, and able to make women well-complexioned,' and then not unnaturally lamented that in England they are chiefly given to swine.
The meal of the Chestnut has also been used for whitening linen cloth and for making starch. The best kind, the Marones, contain 15 per cent sugar, and by expression yield a thick syrup, from which in turn a very usable sugar can be derived. This variety in France forms the favourite sweetmeat: Marons glacés.
Chestnut makes excellent timber. Though in old age the wood is brittle and liable to crack, when in a growing stage, having very little sap wood, it contains more timber of a durable quality than an oak of the same dimensions, and young chestnuts have proved more durable than oak for woodwork that has to be partly in the ground, such as stakes and fences. It is used for many other purposes, such as pit-props and wine-barrels and formerly Chestnut timber was used indiscriminately with oak for the construction of houses, mill-work and household furniture. In hop-growing districts it is in great demand for poles, and a coppice of prime chestnut is worth over L. 50 (pounds sterling) per acre. It makes excellent underwood and is quick growing. We read of an abbot in the reign of Henry II having a grant made to him of 'tithes of Chestnuts in the Forest of Dean,' and in modern days extensive plantings of Chestnuts have been made in the same great forest.
The usual method of propagation is by well-selected nuts, but if the tree is grown with the object of fruit-bearing, grafting is the best method. This is done in foreign countries and the method has been adopted in Devonshire. The grafted trees - called marronniers by the French - are, however, unfit for timber. The most suitable soil for Chestnut trees is a sandy loam, with a dry bottom, but they will grow in any soil, provided the subsoil be dry.
The Chestnut takes its name, Castanea, from a town of the name of Castanis in Thessaly, near where the tree grew in great abundance. It has the same name in different forms in all the European languages.
Part Used Medicinally: The leaves, picked in June and July when they are in best condition and dried. They have also been used in the fresh state.
Chestnut leaves have no odour, but an astringent taste.
Medicinal Action and Uses: In some places Chestnut leaves are used as a popular remedy in fever and ague, for their tonic and astringent properties.
Their reputation rests, however, upon their efficacy in paroxysmal and convulsive coughs, such as whooping-cough, and in other irritable and excitable conditions of the respiratory organs. The infusion of 1 OZ. of the dried leaves in a pint of boiling water is administered in tablespoonful to wineglassful doses, three or four times daily. Culpepper says: 'if you dry the chestnut, both the barks being taken away, beat them into powder and make the powder up into an electuary with honey, it is a first-rate remedy for cough and spitting of blood.
RECIPES Chestnut Soup:
Scald, peel and scrape 50 large chestnuts; put these into a stewpan with 2 OZ. of butter, an onion, 4 lumps of sugar, and a little pepper and salt, and simmer the whole over a slow fire for three-quarters of an hour; then bruise the chestnuts in a mortar; remove the pulp into a stewpan, add a quart of good brown gravy, and having rubbed the purée through a Tammy, pour it into a stewpan; make it hot and serve with fried crusts.