An­other use for the bot­tom of the Aga

Charles Quest-rit­son is charmed by the horse chest­nut

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

THE horse chest­nut is the finest flow­er­ing tree hardy in Bri­tain. I love it to the depth and breadth and height my soul can reach—let me count the ways. I love its big, dark, glis­ten­ing, sticky buds, the del­i­cate pale-green open­ing leaves, their pal­mate shape. I love the way its branches sweep right down to ground level, per­fect for chil­dren’s dens. I love its habit of bear­ing its flow­ers over 5–6 weeks, start­ing with the lower branches on the sunny side and end­ing high up on the cooler north­ern side.

I love the flow­ers them­selves, foot-long cones of white and pink with long stig­mas and curv­ing, up­turned sta­mens. I love the buzz of bees work­ing their way up a spike and pol­li­nat­ing as they move from flower to flower. And the way the dark conkers glis­ten as their cas­ing splits open.

There are Aes­cu­lus species all over Asia and North Amer­ica, but none of them quite comes up to the beauty of our well-known Euro­pean na­tive. Ac­tu­ally, no one knew that it came orig­i­nally from the moun­tain­ous border­lands of Greece and Al­ba­nia un­til long af­ter it was in­tro­duced to Western Europe from Con­stantino­ple, via Vi­enna, at the be­gin­ning of the 16th cen­tury. Now, horse chest­nuts are clas­sic trees of English parkland: there is a stu­pen­dous av­enue of them planted by the 1st Lord Fairhaven at An­gle­sey Abbey in Cam­bridgeshire, half a mile long.

The com­mon name of the horse chest­nut is, rather unusu­ally, com­mem­o­rated in its Latin epi- thet, Aes­cu­lus hip­pocas­tanum. Had it been named by an al­ter­na­tive botanist, such as Ed­ward Lear, we might be call­ing it Aes­cu­lus conkeri. When I was at prep school, some boys said that the best way to har­den a conker was to pickle it in vine­gar, but I knew that the bot­tom oven of the Aga was much more ef­fec­tive.

Horse chest­nuts do, how­ever, suf­fer from the pre­da­tions of a micro-moth known as Cam­er­aria ohridella. This is a leaf miner, ap­par­ently in­dige­nous to the Balkans, that spread very quickly through­out Europe in the early 2000s. I re­mem­ber notic­ing it for the first time in 2005 at the Parc de Sceaux, south of Paris, one of whose many glo­ries is its outer net­work of long av­enues all planted with horse chest­nuts. It was July and I could not un­der­stand why the trees all seemed to be show­ing signs of au­tumn colour.

The moth’s lar­vae suck the sap within the leaves and cre­ate a lat­tice of brown patches from early June on­wards—and they’re ca­pa­ble of pro­duc­ing up to five gen­er­a­tions in one grow­ing sea­son. I’ve also seen them on sycamores and Nor­way maples. The search is on for a bi­o­log­i­cal con­trol—par­a­sitic wasps, for ex­am­ple—but none has yet been found and it’s likely the moths will dis­fig­ure trees for many years to come.

I’m not so keen on the red horse-chest­nut, Aes­cu­lus x carnea, which I as­so­ci­ate with wet pic­nics on school prize-giv­ing days. It has darker leaves, which have a dulling ef­fect on the deep­pink flow­ers and it tends to pro­duce ugly growths on its trunk. Botanists like it be­cause it’s a rare ex­am­ple of a hy­brid (be­tween A. hip­pocas­tanum and the Amer­i­can A. pavia) that comes true from seed, but it, too, is dis­fig­ured by leaf-min­ing moths.

How­ever, a num­ber of species are im­mune to the lit­tle bur­row­ers. In my last gar­den, I found that A. turbinata, the vig­or­ous Ja­panese species with the largest leaves of all, was only lightly in­fected and A. cal­i­for­nica was com­pletely im­mune. The lat­ter has a strange habit of open­ing its first flower right at the top of the pan­i­cle and this de­vel­ops into a lit­tle green conker-to-be be­fore the other flow­ers open. It should grow well on our south-fac­ing chalk hillside.

I would also add A. parv­i­flora, which is shrubby and flow­ers in Au­gust, but is a great spreader; a clump at Prince Pück­ler-muskau’s park at Muskau in Ger­many is some 100ft in di­am­e­ter.

Best of all, and com­pletely im­mune to the moths, is the ma­jes­tic In­dian horse-chest­nut A. in­dica, with el­e­gant leaflets and long, slen­der flow­ers that don’t open un­til June or July. It will in­creas­ingly take the place of A. hip­pocas­tanum in Bri­tain. I’ve planted it in our new gar­den con­fi­dent that, if I don’t live to see it flower, gen­er­a­tions to come will will bless my mem­ory.

‘I love the way the dark conkers glis­ten as their cas­ings split open

Charles Quest-rit­son is au­thor of the RHS En­cy­clo­pe­dia of Roses

A pink-and-white de­light: horse-chest­nut flow­ers in April

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