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A tree reaching over 100 ft in height, with a rounded, spreading head as much in diameter, and a trunk 15 ft or more in girth; winter buds very resinous. Leaves composed of five to seven leaflets, which are obovate, from 5 to 12 in. long, 2 to 5 in. wide, irregularly toothed, the terminal one the largest; the upper surface is glabrous, the lower one has patches of brown hairs in the axils of the veins, and short hairs thinly scattered over it. Panicles up to 12 in, high, and 4 in. through. Flowers with four or five petals, white with a patch of colour at the base, which is at first yellow, then red; stamens rather longer than the petals. Fruit spiny, 21⁄2 in. across, containing one, sometimes two, of the well-known lustrous brown nuts.
The horse-chestnut is at once the best-known and the most beautiful of flowering trees of the largest size. The stately, spreading form of fully grown trees is appropriately accompanied by noble proportions and handsome shape of leaf, and by large, striking flower-clusters. An English park can afford no finer sight than a group of horse-chestnuts towards the end of May, when every branchlet carries its erect cone of white flowers. The history of the horse-chestnut is interesting. It reached Western Europe by way of Constantinople in 1576, when seeds were sent to the botanist Clusius at Vienna, and it had spread westwards to France and England early in the seventeenth century. For more than two hundred and fifty years its real native country was unknown. N. India was long regarded as its most probable home, and Loudon, as late as 1837, suggested N. America. Its real wild habitat is now definitely established as being much nearer home; namely, in the mountainous, uninhabited wilds of Northern Greece and Albania, where several observers have found it to be undoubtedly indigenous.
The economic value of the horse-chestnut is not great. The timber is soft and lacking in strength, and is chiefly employed in the manufacture of kitchen utensils, toys, and other articles for which durability is not of great importance. The nuts are abundantly produced, and are eaten by some animals, notably deer. I have noticed the deer in Bushey Park, at the time the nuts are falling, race eagerly for them as they drop to the ground. Loudon and others suggest various uses for them, but so far as I can learn there is no systematic demand for them. They have such an extraordinary fascination for boys in furnishing the material for the game of ‘conkers’ (conquerors), that the value of the species as a communal tree is in some districts seriously diminished by their efforts with sticks and stones to bring down the nuts before they naturally fall.
More should be said about the natural distribution of this remarkable European species. Its main range is in central and southern Albania and in north-western Greece, where it occurs in Epirus and western Thessaly. Its southernmost stand in Greece is (or was until recently) around 38° 43’S. Farther to the east there are large groves of it in Bulgaria, south of Preslav.
No specimens of the horse chestnut were given in the main work. Some of the more notable are:
The Old Rectory, Much Hadham, Herts., 120 × 183⁄4 ft and 121 × 191⁄4 ft at 3 ft (1984); West Dean House, Sussex, 85 × 201⁄4 ft (1985); Hurstbourne Priors, Hants, 118 × 22 ft (1984); Ashford Chace, Hants., c. 105 × 113⁄4 ft (meas. by P. H. Gardner, 1986); Castle Ashby, Northants, pl. 1762, 100 × 173⁄4 ft, layered (1983); Kingston Lacy, Dorset, 115 × 18 ft (1983); Badminton House, Glos., 90 × 22 ft at 3 ft (1982); Walcombe, Wells, Som., 100 × 17 ft (1984); Moncrieffe House, Perths., 90 × 22 ft at 3 ft (1982).
cv. ‘Baumannii’. – Specimens: Kew, pl. 1876, 65 × 101⁄4 ft (1981); Hall Place, Kent, 88 × 15 ft (1984); University Botanic Garden, Cambridge, 80 × 121⁄2 ft at 3 ft (1985); Westonbirt, Glos., Entrance, 105 × 121⁄2 ft (1983); Henrietta Park, Bath, 92 × 121⁄4 ft (1984).
† cv. ‘Hampton Court Gold’. – Leaves yellow when young and suffused with pink when unfolding. The original tree at Hampton Court is about 40 ft high.