Quick facts

Common name: sweet chestnut

Scientific name: Castanea sativa

Family: Fagaceae

Origin: non-native

Sweet chestnut is a deciduous tree which can reach 35m when mature and live for up to 700 years. They belong to the same family as oaks and beeches. The bark is grey-purple and smooth, and develops vertical fissures with age. The twigs are purple-brown and buds are plum, red-brown and oval in shape. They can develop vast girths which can reach up to 2m in diameter.

Look out for: widely spaced teeth around the edges of leaves. The seeds develop inside the prickly, green seed cases.

Identified in winter by: the bark which has fissures that spiral upwards around the tree.

What does sweet chestnut look like?

Sweet chestnut leaf close up

Credit: Martin Fowler / Alamy Stock Photo

Leaves

About 16–28 cm long, 5–9 cm wide and oblong with a pointed tip and a serrated or toothed edge. The leaves are quite glossy and there are about 20 pairs of prominent parallel veins.

Sweet chestnut male flower

Credit: Nature Photographers Ltd / WTML

Flowers

Long, yellow catkins of mostly male flowers, with female flowers at the base. Sweet chestnut is monoecious, meaning both male and female flowers are found on the same tree.

Sweet chestnut spiky outershells

Credit: David Sewell / Alamy Stock Photo

Fruits

After pollination by insects, female flowers develop into shiny, red-brown fruits wrapped in a green, spiky case. The trees begin to bear fruit when they are around 25 years old.

Not to be confused with:

Horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum), which has similar nuts, but those of the sweet chestnut are smaller and found in clusters. The leaves are completely different, with sweet chestnut having single, long, serrated leaves and horse chestnut having hand-shaped leaves with deeply divided lobes or ‘fingers’.

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Sweet chestnut tree in autumn in a field

Credit: Geogphotos / Alamy Stock Photo

Where to find sweet chestnut

Sweet chestnut is native to southern Europe, western Asia and north Africa. It is thought to have been introduced to the British Isles by the Romans and today can be found commonly throughout the UK in woods and copses, especially in parts of southern England where it is still managed to form large areas of coppice.

Bank vole with sweet chestnut seed in autumn

Credit: Andy Sands / naturepl.com

Value to wildlife

The flowers provide an important source of nectar and pollen for bees and other insects, while red squirrels eat the nuts. A large number of micro-moths feed on the leaves and nuts.

The Tortworth sweet chesnut, an ancient tree

Credit: Martin Fowler / Alamy Stock Photo

Mythology and symbolism

There is very little mythology surrounding the sweet chestnut in the UK, probably because it was introduced. However, the ancient Greeks dedicated the sweet chestnut to Zeus and its botanical name Castanea comes from Castonis, a Town in Thessaly in Greece where the tree was grown for its nuts.

Did you know?

The world’s oldest known chestnut tree grows on Mount Etna in Sicily and has a circumference of 190 feet. It is said to be between 2,000 and 4,000 years old.

Uses of sweet chestnut

Sweet chestnut timber is similar to oak but is more lightweight and easier to work. It has a straight grain when young, but this spirals in older trees. It can be used for carpentry, joinery and furniture. In southeast England, sweet chestnut is coppiced to produce poles.

Unlike the nuts of the horse chestnut, those of the sweet chestnut are edible to humans and can be roasted and used in a variety of recipes, including stuffing for poultry, cake fillings, nut roasts and much more. The Romans ground sweet chestnuts into a flour or coarse meal.

Sweet chestnuts are a rich source of vitamins C (the only nut that is) and B, and minerals including magnesium, potassium and iron. Their high level of starch is similar to that of wheat and twice as high as the potato.

Threats and conservation

Sweet chestnut has been found to be susceptible to fungal diseases. Chestnut blight has recently arrived in the UK, which causes bark cankers and can lead to dieback and death. Young trees can also suffer from squirrel damage.