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May 2012

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Horse chestnut

Dick Warner reports on a threat to the familiar horse chestnut

The horse chestnut has been called the most magnificent flowering tree in the temperate zone. This may be true, though I think some of the magnolias would give them a run for their money, but unfortunately the horse chestnut quickly grows to a size that makes it impossible in a garden of normal size. They can easily exceed twenty metres in height and typically have a very wide, domed crown. The cultivated varieties with pink or red flowers are much smaller. 

Horse Chestnut

It's also unfortunate that in Ireland, and all over Europe, horse chestnuts are being attacked by a deadly bacterial disease called bleeding canker. Many trees have died around the country, including some fine specimens recently felled by the Office of Public Works in Dublin's Phoenix Park. There is no known treatment for the disease, which also affects the cultivated varieties, so the sad fact is that we may have to say goodbye to a lovely tree. One of the side-effects of this would be the end of the game of conkers, played by generations of school children, and some adults. There is both an Irish and a World Conker Championship.

If we do have to say goodbye to the horse chestnut, it's worth recalling the story of how it first arrived in Ireland, because it's rather a good story. In 1576 the Holy Roman Emperor's ambassador in Constantinople sent some conkers back to Vienna. With them came the information that the tree they came from had beautiful white and pink flowers like candles and the conkers, though not edible by humans, were a veterinary medicine given to horses with coughs and other respiratory ailments.

Young horse chestnuts grow quite rapidly and soon the flowering tree with the ability to cure horse ailments had many admirers. By 1615 the new tree had reached Paris, again from seed sourced in the markets of Constantinople, and there is a report of one growing in London in 1633. I can't find any record of the first one to be planted in Ireland but it's safe to assume that it was in the late 1600s. At that time the Viceroy commissioned extensive planting in Phoenix Park for Charles II and it seems quite likely that this included the new flowering tree that was all the rage in London.

All the seed had come from Constantinople, which is now Istanbul, so it was assumed that the species was a native of Asia. There was speculation about eastern Turkey, or perhaps further east in what was then Persia, now Iran, and some botanists thought that the frost hardiness of the tree indicated a Himalayan origin. The trouble was that nobody could find it in the wild.

Then in the 1790s an English gentleman explorer called John Hawkins reported that horse chestnuts grew wild in the Pindar Mountains in Greece. He published his findings but the botanical establishment of the day was so convinced that the species had an Asian origin that he was laughed at.

Nothing more happened until 1879. The Ottoman Empire was shrinking and the Kingdom of Greece was growing. This made northern Greece an easier and safer place to visit. A German called Theodor von Heldreich, who was Director of the Botanic Gardens in Athens at the time, took the opportunity to mount an expedition to what was one of the wildest and least-known parts of Europe. At first he didn't believe reports from his local guides that deep in the mountains there were chestnut trees with large white flowers growing wild. But eventually he climbed up into a totally uninhabited area that straddled the Albanian border and found horse chestnuts growing in shady, humid ravines at an altitude of between 1,000 and 1,300 metres.

Several subsequent expeditions have established that the species is indeed native to Europe but only in small numbers in this one mountain range. Wild horse chestnuts are unlike the stately specimens we know as street trees or in parks. They tend to be stunted and rather short-lived. It does seem sad that a fine tree which has been part of the Irish landscape for over three centuries and which has such an interesting history is in danger of dying out.

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