Churchyard Nature Note with Andrew Tompsett

November 2016



We have two kinds of chestnut trees in our churchyard, the Sweet Chestnut and the Horse Chestnut, each giving us pleasure in the autumn but for different reasons.

There are three Sweet Chestnuts Castanea sativa , these are the ones with very spiny seed cases and which may have edible nuts inside. These trees are natives of Italy and were brought to this country as a food source by Roman legions. They are reputed to live up to 700 years and suffer less from pests and disease than the Horse Chestnut.

Our oldest tree near the west end of the church has several trunks. This is the consequence of having been cut down (coppiced) in the past. Unfortunately, though this tree looks promising each autumn, its nuts are always poor. Whether this is because it was raised from poor stock, or whether our climate is unsuitable, is not certain, but bear in mind that the best nuts to enjoy at Christmas come from Italy and other southern European countries. Our two other sweet chestnut trees were planted in the most recent burial area by Peter Chegwidden. It will be very interesting to see whether these turn out to be fruitful.

In the UK Sweet Chestnut trees have an important function which is to provide fence posts and palings and are planted on many South Eastern county estates as a crop. When cut down or coppiced, new shoots grow up strongly and at about 12 years of age are straight and strong enough to cut and split for fence posts. The wood is also good for joinery.

Our eight Horse Chestnut trees Aesculus hippocastanum in the churchyard are not yet old enough to produce flowers or seeds = ‘conkers’ and can be seen growing in the North-west sector. This species is a native of Turkey first planted in the UK in the 16th century and is useful as a medicine and food for horses as well as a shampoo additive and starch substitute. It is noticeable that the shoots bear the old leaf scars in the shape of a horseshoe with nail marks.

The buds are large and sticky, protecting them in the winter but they open well in water if cut and brought indoors in early spring. The upright flowers of horse chestnut on a well-shaped, mature tree, are very attractive giving a suggestion of a Christmas tree with candles. The wood is soft and not particularly useful but the ‘conkers’ which form in the thick spiky cases are not only very beautiful but essential to the game we have all played in our youth! I am sure many of us will have spent hours not only in conflict but also in testing the various theories on how to harden up the ‘conker’ to improve their chances in battle. Health and safety considerations have led to the banning of ‘conker’ games in most schools so perhaps more conkers will remain undamaged to grow into the magnificent trees which adorn our parks and countryside.

Come Autumn the leaves change to a curled rusty red but a closer look may reveal signs of a bacterial disease, the Bleeding Canker which reached this country as long ago as 1970. In a Forestry Commission survey in 2007 some 50% of the UK trees had become infected! It attacks trees of any age but some do recover. A leaf mining moth causing leaf blotches is prevalent this year and further leaf blotching is caused by a fungus, perhaps the milder winters are not so good for the trees?

Andrew Tompsett