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Sweet chestnut

The sweet chestnut was probably brought to the UK by the Romans and for centuries since has been much loved for its tasty seeds.
Sweet Chestnut (Castanea sativa) at Kew Gardens

About Kew's sweet chestnut

This is possibly the oldest tree in Kew Gardens, dating back to the early 1700s or even late 1600s. The sweet chestnut was a popular tree at the time and many were planted by Charles Bridgeman – a famous garden designer of the period who is credited with starting the English Landscape Movement and who worked at Kew.

In a more recent career development, the tree took a starring role in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, as the bark model for the film's Whomping Willow.

Take a closer look

  • This is a typical tree. Notice the deep grooves in the bark, the spiral bark growth made when the tree grows uninterrupted, and the long leaves (up to almost 30 cm) with their serrated edges.
  • Other sweet chestnuts nearby of a similar age have been pollarded, that is cut back to generate new growth. Their characterful, gnarled bark patterns are the result.
  • Look out for fresh post and rail fencing in the gardens – Kew grows its own sweet chestnut timber for this.
  • Each long catkin holds both male and female flowers – males towards the top of the catkin, female flowers at the bottom.

Tree biology

In late June to July, sweet chestnuts sprout 10-20 cm long catkins. By autumn the female flowers at the lower end of each catkin develop into spiny protective cases called cupules. This prickly outer layer helps deter squirrels and other wildlife from getting to the brown nuts inside, until they are dropped in October.

Sweet chestnuts do well in the UK's mild climate and produce many nuts even in shady forests, as long as they get enough moisture.

Cultivation and uses

Sweet chestnut wood is hard and durable enough to make furniture, barrels, fencing and roof beams. It does tend to split and warp, so it is not usually used in large pieces when structural strength is needed.

The tree is most famous for its edible nuts which are nutritionally similar to wheat and were at one point part of some European’s staple diet – Roman armies marched on a diet of sweet chestnut porridge. 

Over the centuries chestnuts have been used to make flour, a roasted winter snack, porridge, marron glacés, a wartime coffee substitute, turkey stuffing, and a fine Corsican beer. Today chestnuts are more often a seasonal treat but are still as popular as ever.

Quick facts

  • Scientific name: Castanea sativa
  • Family: Fagaceae
  • Place of origin: Asia Minor, northern Africa and southern Europe
  • Conservation status: Common, probably helped by the many uses of its nutritious seeds.
  • Date planted: Early 1700s
  • Height: 18.9 m. This tree isn’t far off fully grown. Sweet chestnuts do well in Kew's sandy soil, but in perfect conditions can reach 20-35 m tall with a trunk 2 m in diameter.