Castanea sativa, sweet chestnut, is a deciduous tree, found growing throughout the UK. It’s not a UK native – it hails from southern Europe, western Asia and North Africa. Sweet chestnut is suitable for coppicing and is therefore often grown for its wood, especially in Kent and Sussex. It produces nuts which are edible and can be roasted and eaten in a variety of ways, and are traditionally enjoyed at Christmas.
How to grow a sweet chestnut tree
Grow sweet chestnut trees in sun or partial shade, in moist, well-drained soil. Sweet chestnut trees can live to around 700 years old, although much older trees have been recorded.
Identifying sweet chestnut
The leaves of sweet chestnut are long with serrated edges and prominent veins, turning bronze in autumn before falling. In summer, the tree is covered creamy-yellow male and female catkins. The bark is smooth when the tree is young, but will become more textured and furrowed as the tree matures.
When the tree is around 25 years old, it produces shiny edible and nutritious chestnuts, encased in prickly green shells. These are delicious roasted over a fire and can be ground into flour. Don’t confuse them with conkers, which are the inedible fruits of the horse chestnut tree.
Sweet chestnut and wildlife
The catkins of sweet chestnut provide both nectar and pollen for pollinators such as bees, and squirrels eat the nuts. Some species of moth feed on the leaves.
Where to grow sweet chestnut
Grow sweet chestnut trees in sun or partial shade, in moist but well-drained soil. It’s a large tree, so is suitable for very large gardens. However it can be coppiced and kept to a smaller size.
How to plant sweet chestnut
Sweet chestnut trees can be purchased as bare-root plants, and planted from late autumn to early spring. Plant in a square hole that’s big enough for the roots to spread out, ensuring that the tree sits at the same level it was when it was previously planted (you should be able to see a soil ‘tide mark’ towards the base of the stem, to guide you). Backfill with soil and firm gently, water in well and mulch the soil with compost.
It is possible to grow sweet chestnut trees from seed, but ensure that the seeds are prepared with a minimum of three months in cold storage before sowing. Plant the seeds in February or March. Grow in a warm spot before hardening off once any risk of frost has passed.
How to prune sweet chestnut
Sweet chestnut trees require little to no pruning, as the natural framework of the tree is well-balanced. It does not have vigorously growing shoots that need managing, so does not require routine pruning. If you do prune, do so in late winter/early spring, and remove diseased or damaged branches, or shoots that are crossing or growing in unwanted directions.
Growing sweet chestnut trees: pests and diseases
Sweet chestnut is at risk of fungal diseases.
- Sweet chestnut blight is a fungus, currently limited to the south of England – it can cause cankers on the bark and can result in dieback or death of the tree
- Young trees can be damaged by squirrels
- A canker caused by Phytophthora and leaf spot can also be a problem.
Advice on buying sweet chestnut
- Make sure you have enough space to grow sweet chestnut – it can reach ultimately reach more than 20m x 15m
- You’re likely to find sweet chestnut at a specialist tree nursery or online. Always buy trees from a reputable supplier, who sells British-grown or certified disease-free stock, to guarantee against pests and diseases
- Look out for bare root plants that can be bought and planted in the dormant season – these are usually cheaper
Where to buy sweet chestnut