Sweet Chestnut in The Christmas Song

Catalan market vendor roasting chestnuts in the street. Castanea sativa, the Sweet Chestnut is also known as the Spanish Chestnut. Photo credit: CC Greg Gladman via Flickr

The sound of Nat King Cole’s voice singing Chestnuts roasting on an open fire makes it feel that Christmas has really arrived. The song is officially known as the Christmas Song. Chestnuts appear in the first line of the lyrics. The music conjures up that familiar warm glow beside the fire in winter. Chestnuts come from the Sweet Chestnut tree, Castanea sativa. It is regarded as an archaeophyte rather than a native British tree. Nonetheless, one Sweet Chestnut resident in Britain almost rivals the famous Fortingall Yew for longevity.

Roman Introduction?

It is frequently claimed that the Romans introduced the Sweet Chestnut to Britain. Chestnuts were a staple part of Roman legionaries’ diets, so that would explain why many think that the tree may have been widely planted here. An extensive 2019 review of all known material concluded that there was not sufficient proof to support this theory. Chestnuts could have been imported.

Incomplete Pollen Records

It is acknowledged that the Sweet Chestnut was actively grown in the UK from the 12th century. The date of the first planting remains unclear. Unfortunately, the tree’s limited pollen dispersal does not help scientists shed any light on the timing either. Although mainland Europe’s pollen records are also poor, they do point to a more significant presence.

Torthworth’s Celebrity Tree

The most famous Sweet Chestnut can be found in a churchyard in Tortworth, Gloucestershire. It reputedly grew from a chestnut planted in the reign of King Egbert in AD 800. There is a 12-century, written record of the tree as a boundary marker in the reign of King Stephen. It has been repeatedly measured and sketched down the ages. Alongside the Fortingall Yew, it gained celebrity tree status as the only other tree recorded on Ordnance Survey maps in the late 1800s. Like the Yew, the Sweet Chestnut has an extraordinary ability to regenerate new growth while decaying at its heart.

The famous and ancient Tortworth Sweet Chestnut is decaying at its heart but regenerates away from the centre.

Future Survival?

The Sweet Chestnut is a tree that has the potential to benefit from climate change. The current British climate does not permit the best chestnut crops. Traditionally, chestnuts were seen as a foodstuff for the poor. There has been renewed interest in the tree for construction timber and furniture. It has also been regarded as a pleasing tree aesthetically in the landscape, although it has fallen out of favour. Unfortunately, pests and diseases pose a major threat: Ink disease, Chestnut Blight and Oriental Chestnut Gall Wasp (OCGW).

Sweet Chestnut, Castanea sativa, fruit in spine-covered green capsules with foliage. The capsules eventually split open to reveal 3 shiny, brown nuts. © Karen Andrews.

Link to YouTube Video of Nat King Cole singing The Christmas Song (Chestnuts roasting on an open fire)

References and Further Reading


Karen does not seek or receive any commercial interest or advantage from this blog. She is not promoting any business venture. She simply loves to share fascinating facts about plants. These pages illustrate her love of plants, botany, biodiversity, gardens and creative expression. There is always so much to learn about plant diversity. This blog is designed as a showcase for photography, commentary on plants and wildlife, gardens and other places visited, horticulture and related topics. Viewpoints are her own, not those of her employer.

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