Sandy’s Garden ... The Sweet Chestnuts of Rome

My wife and I woke up in Rome one morning at the very end of October last year.

By Sandy Simspon
Monday, 4th March 2019, 8:35 am
Updated Monday, 4th March 2019, 9:47 am
Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

We realised, when we drew back the curtains and opened the tight-fitting wooden shutters which had kept our hotel room protected from all the noises of the night, that we had slept through a fair old gale, for the pavements were littered with myriad small branches and foliage from the chestnut trees which lined the street. I was the first to venture out and to realise that there was still a gale blowing and that the air was filled with blown leaves and small twiglets, many with not-quite-mature nuts attached, still in their protective casings.

It set me to wondering why there were so many chestnut trees in the viali of Rome … the streets which are called boulevards in Paris, avenues in Edinburgh and parkways in New York … and I discovered that these chestnut trees, Castanea sativa … Castanea being the Roman form of the name of the region in Ancient Greece whence the earliest examples in Italy were thought to have come, while sativa means ‘sweet’ … were first introduced to Europe more than 4 000 years ago. These are, of course, what we call ‘sweet chestnuts’ and are the trees which produce the chestnuts which have become very much a part of Christmas fare, as in the Christmas anthem “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire”, written in 1944 by Mel Tormé and Bob Wells and a staple of all music radio stations at that time of year.

Italian street vendors sell roasted sweet chestnuts from pavement stalls all year round. These tasty treats are low in fat and have lots of fibre, vitamin C and essential minerals. It is said that the Greek army survived on chestnuts during their retreat from Asia Minor in the years 401-399 B.C.; and it is more than possible that this facility appealed to the commanders of the Roman army and encouraged the widespread cultivation of the trees in their homeland. Castanea sativa, is … to quote the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) … “a species of flowering plant in the family Fagaceae, native to Southern Europe and Asia Minor, and widely cultivated throughout the temperate world. A substantial, long-lived deciduous tree, it produces an edible seed, the chestnut, which has been used in cooking since ancient times.”

I could not … or, at least, should not … think of growing a sweet chestnut tree in my urban, domestic garden, for a mature tree will aspire to a height of anything between 20m and 35m (say 65ft to 115ft in old money). The trunk of a large tree will have a diameter of 2m … say, 7ft … in areas with a mild climate where it does not have to cope with early or late frosts and where it can find enough moisture to encourage good growth. It can live for more than a staggering 2,000 years in ideal conditions; and it is grown for its edible seeds … its chestnuts … and for its rot-resistant wood, which was, and is, in demand for wooden buildings, particularly in the United States. Probably coincidentally, for I suspect the trees predate the building, the American Embassy in Rome is located in a sweet chestnut-lined viale very close to the hotel we were staying in; and how sad it is that nowadays this building is thought to need protection in the form of concrete barriers, truly substantial fencing and armed guards. It doesn’t look like the power-base of an ally in another country’s capital city!

Whatever, centuries-old sweet chestnut trees can be seen throughout central, western and southern Europe, including the United Kingdom, having been a popular choice for cityscaping and landscaping, particularly in the 18th and 19th centuries; and sweet chestnut trees are still sometimes planted as decorative street trees in British towns, just as the Italians continue to replace any damaged or diseased examples in the elegant streets of Rome.