By Charlotte Owen
Autumn is now well underway. There’s the satisfying crunch of fallen leaves underfoot and the hedgerows are draped in sloes, hawthorn berries and rose hips basking in the late-season sunshine. Woodlands are full of fruiting fungi and in many places the ground is littered with mounds of prickly sweet chestnuts, their spiny cases like a gathering of tiny green hedgehogs all curled into a ball. The spines serve the same protective function, guarding the developing nuts in an impenetrable fortress until they are perfectly ripe. Only then will they open up to release their prize, sometimes while still on the tree, sometimes after falling to the ground. Either way, the squirrels are having a field day harvesting the sweet chestnut crop, eating some now and saving some for later, squirreling them away in a safe spot to see them through the winter.
The nuts are popular with people too and the sweet chestnut tree was originally introduced here by the Romans as a source of food. They would often grind the chestnuts into flour and we still roast them merrily on an open fire – or in the oven – today. The trees are now a common sight in the English landscape and while some have been deliberately planted in parks or as street trees, many are self-seeded. A sweet chestnut tree bearing fruit will be at least 25 years old but most will be much older, with deeply ridged bark that twists and spirals its way around the trunk.
A mature tree can reach a height of up to 30 metres (almost 100 feet), at which point its tallest branches could tap against a tenth-floor window, and you’d need at least six people linking hands to encompass a veteran’s trunk entirely. Sussex is home to one of the largest sweet chestnuts in England, known fondly known as the Cowdray Colossus. This mighty tree is some 400 years old and has a girth of more than 12 metres (just under 40 feet). Such ancient trees often develop deep fissures but any branches that do collapse have a good chance of taking root and sending up fresh shoots in the spring.