Aesculus hippocastanum

Aesculus Hippocastanum Scar

figure 9

Winter wigs of Horse chestnut (xj). Winter bud (XZ),

This very beautiful tree was brought to Britain from the Balkans in 1616. It draws its name from Its fruit, which resembles that of the quite unrelated Sweet chestnut tree, either because these nuts were fed by the Turks to ailing horses (though normally all animals refuse to touch them) or from 'horse' in the sense of 'coarse, inedible' as in horse-radish. Horse chestnut timber is nearly white in colour, and smooth and soft in texture. It has no real commercial use, though it is sometimes made into trays or toys. The tree is grown solely for ornament and it makes, as Plate 5 shows, a magnificent park and avenue display. The bark is greyish brown, and as it ages it breaks up into rough squares. The trunks of old trees often become ribbed or fluted, and pink-brown.

Horse chestnut has remarkably stout twigs, with bold oval buds set in pairs. In winter the outer bud-scales are covered with a sticky resin, which is probably a safeguard against insect attack. Below each bud there is a distinct horse-shoe shaped leaf scar, carrying a series of tiny knobs near its edge. These knobs, which resemble horse-shoe nails, are actually the scars left by the main veins of the leaf that fell in the previous autumn. People often gather these buds and place them in water indoors, so as to watch the gradual unfolding of the bright emerald green leaves. Whilst in the bud, the leaves are covered in a fawn-coloured down, which falls away as they open.

Horse chestnut leaves are compound, made up of several leaflets springing from a central stalk. They spread out like the fingers of a hand and this kind of compound leaf is called palmate. There are usually five leaflets, but sometimes only three, or as many as seven.

The lower-spikes of horse chestnut are a magnificent sight when they open in May, They are massed near the tip of the branches, and carry the white blossoms well dear of the foliage. They bear the youngest flowers towards their tips, on groups of figure 9

Winter wigs of Horse chestnut (xj). Winter bud (XZ),

Branches Leaves

figure 10

Horse chestnut leaf and Qower spike in May (X^).

figure 10

Horse chestnut leaf and Qower spike in May (X^).

short branched stalks. Each separate Bower is strongly one-sided or zygomoTphic, not symmetrically round as in most other trees. There are five green sepals and five ┬╗white petals; the largest and boldest petals are at the top of each flower, and all of them have crinkled edges. Within the petals comes a group of six to eight stamens, which are all curved downwards; this arrangement provides a landing point for nectar-seeking bees, and also ensures that they pick up plenty of pollen to carry to the next flower. Hidden amid the stamens is a stigma on a short style, which receives pollen brought by the bees from another blossom. The bright orange and red patches on the petals darken once the flower is fertilised.

After the petals have faded and fallen, the ovary at the base of the style expands rapidly to form the familiar spiky green husk. Within it one or two large nuts develop - the well-known horse chestnuts, or 'conkers'. Each has a conspicuous pale brown patch on one side, but is bright chestnut brown elsewhere. Boys gather these nuts and thread them on strings for mock battles; the harder the nut the more likely it is to shatter its opponent.

Horse chestnuts are easily raised from seeds, provided the seeds are stored under moist conditions - for example in damp sand - all the winter through. The whole nut remains below ground, and sends up a stout shoot that bears compound leaves right from the outset. This tree belongs to the natural family Hippocastanaceae. The Red Horse chestnut is a hybrid, Aesculus X camea, which arose by crossing with the American Red buckeye, A. pavia; nurserymen increase it by grafting on to a common white-flowered stock.

Sweet Chestnut Leaf

figure 11

Horse chestnut leaf, fruit and seed October (X^).

figure 11

Horse chestnut leaf, fruit and seed October (X^).

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