The Natural History of the Horsechestnut
Two favorable developments for me this spring:
I obtained a reasonably-priced set of W.J. Bean’s Trees and Shrubs Hardy in the British Isles. Two months ago, this would not have meant anything to me (as it probably doesn’t to most people), so let me explain. Bean’s Trees and Shrubs is the most long-revered, thoroughly encyclopedic reference to woody plants (i.e., trees, shrubs), both cultivated and wild, in the temperate Northern Hemisphere. Why do I care about this? I’ve long sought a reference on tree identification, but the problem with most guides is that they stop once they have provided a few physical details to ID the plant. And while a well-organized guide to IDs is hard enough to do well, I have found it kind of boring and without context by itself. Putting a name to something is one of the most valuable gateways to the long-term memory, but where does one go after one has a name? Many guides are agnostic about whether one finds a tree in a city park or in the middle of a forest; and they don’t tell you what the tree means–if I can put it that way. If I am to remember, what might help me is a guide to why a given plant is cultivated, where it has been grown over time, and who brought it to the British Isles to cultivate it (if anyone). That is what Bean’s 5-volume set, first published in 1914, does for me1 The title gives away the main problem with Bean’s work–it’s Anglocentric (and rather old at this point)–but it’s still considered a valuable classic, and gives one a place to start understanding why both botanists and laypeople have historically appreciated a given tree or shrub.
I got to take a look at the Horsechestnut trees in bloom. One byproduct of my shelter-in-place quarantine is that I am looking around a lot more at my surroundings. I finally identified some of the trees in the neighborhood that I had wondered about but never had the patience to examine closely. That being said, the European Horsechestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) is not a subtle tree in spring. Here are the blooms:
One of the nice thing about a plant’s common name is that there are usually several of them, so you can pick the one you like. One of the common listed names for the horsechestnut is the “Candle Tree.” I can see why.
But enough from me. The tree is originally from the Balkans, but cultivated across the world now–including the British Isles. Let me end with a sample of what Bean has to say about it:
The horse-chestnut is at once the best-known and most beautiful of flowering trees of the largest size.
An English park can afford no finer sight than the group of horse-chestnuts towards the end of May, when every branchlet carries its erect cone of white flowers.
It reached Western Europe by way of Constantinople in 1576, when seeds were sent to the botanist Clusius at Vienna, and it had spread westwards to France and England by early in the 17th century. For more than two hundred and fifty years its real native country was unknown. N. India was long regard as its most probably home, and Loudon, as late as 1837, suggested N. America. Its real wild habitat is now definitely established as being much nearer home; namely, in the mountainous, uninhabited wilds of Northern Greece and Albania, where several observers have found it to be indigenous.
The economic value of the horse-chestnut is not great. The timber is soft and lacking in strength, and is chiefly employed in the manufacture of kitchen utensils, toys and other utensils for which durability is not of great importance.
[The nuts of the horsechestnut] have such an extraordinary fascination for boys in furnishing the material for the game of ‘conkers’ (conquerors), that the value of the species as a communal tree is in some districts seriously diminished by their efforts with sticks and stones to bring down the nuts before they naturally fall.Bean, Trees and Shrubs Hardy in the British Isles, 257
- Although the first edition had two volumes, the edition to get today is the four-volume Revised Eighth Edition, which was published in the 1970s (Bean was dead by this point). And the fifth supplement volume by D.L. Clarke. This is the one that the dendrologists John Grimshaw and Ross Bayton recommend in their creative 2012 follow-up of sorts to Bean’s work, New Trees: Recent Introductions to Cultivation (also recommended reading). The fourth volume of Bean’s work (“Ri-Z”) appears scarce at this time; good copies of the other volumes are more plentiful. There is also an online copy of this 8th final edition of Bean’s work, made available by the International Dendrology Society. The formatting isn’t great and the illustrations and photos appear to have been stripped out, but it’s still useful for quick reference. While writing this citation I also discovered a more modern, actively maintained, reference for trees and shrubs, also sponsored by the American Dendrology Society, called “Trees and Shrubs Online.” See the references below.
W.J. Bean and George Taylor, Trees and Shrubs Hardy in the British Isles, 8th Edition (5 Volumes). J. Murray, 1970-1980
W.J. Bean and The American Dendrology Society. Bean’s Trees and Shrubs Online (beanstreesandshrubs.org/)
D.L. Clarke, Supplement to Trees and Shrubs Hardy in the British Isles. John Murray, 1988.
The American Dendrology Society. Trees and Shrubs Online (treesandshrubsonline.org)
John Grimshaw and Ross Bayton. New Trees: Recent Introductions to Cultivation. Kew Publishing, 2015.