Gateway to the Classics: Display Item
Anna B. Comstock


Chestnut blossoms.

Note the two pistillate flowers above the staminate catkins.

Photo by Verne Morton.

The Chestnut

Teacher's Story

dropcap image HIS splendid tree, sometimes reaching the height of one hundred feet, seldom receives the admiration due to it, simply because humanity is so much more interested in food than in beauty. The fact that the chestnuts are sought so eagerly has taken away from interest in the appearance of the tree. The chestnut has a great round head set firmly on a handsome bole, which is covered with grayish brown bark divided into rather broad, flat, irregular ridges. The foliage is superb; the long, slender, graceful leaves, tapering at both ends, are glossy, brilliant green above and paler below; and they are placed near the ends of the twigs, those of the fruiting twigs seeming to be arranged in rosettes to make a background for blossom or fruit. The leaves are placed alternately and have deeply notched edges, the veins extending straight and unbroken from midrib to margin; the petiole is short. The leaf is like that of the beech, except that it is much longer and more pointed; it resembles in general shape the leaf of the chestnut oak, except that the edges of the latter have rounded scallops instead of being sharply toothed. The burs appear at the axils of the leaves near the end of the twig. Thoreau has given us a most admirable description of the chestnut fruit:

"What a perfect chest the chestnut is packed in! With such wonderful care Nature has secluded and defended these nuts as if they were her most precious fruits, while diamonds are left to take care of themselves. First, it bristles all over with sharp, green prickles, some nearly a half inch long, like a hedgehog rolled into a ball; these rest on a thick, stiff, barklike rind one-sixteenth to one-eighth of an inch thick, which again is most daintily lined with a kind of silvery fur or velvet plush one-sixteenth of an inch thick, even rising into a ridge between the nuts, like the lining of a casket in which the most precious commodities are kept. At last frost comes to unlock this chest; it alone holds the true key; and then Nature drops to the rustling leaves a 'done' nut, prepared to begin a chestnut's course again. Within itself again each individual nut is lined with a reddish velvet, as if to preserve the seed from jar and injury in falling, and perchance from sudden damp and cold; and within that a thin, white skin envelops the germ. Thus, it has lining within lining and unwearied care, not to count closely, six coverings at least before you reach the contents."

The red squirrels, as if to show their spite because of the protection of this treasure chest, have the reprehensible habit of cutting off the young burs and thus robbing themselves of a rich later harvest—which serves them right. There are usually two nuts in each bur, set with flat sides together; but sometimes there are three and then the middle one is squeezed so that it has two flat sides. Occasionally there is only one nut developed in a bur—an only child, so well cared for that it grows to be almost globular. The color we call chestnut is derived from the beautiful red-brown of the polished shell of the nut, polished except where the base joins the bur, and the apex which is gray and downy.


Detail of a chestnut blossom.

a, a. pistillate flowers set in a base of scales;
b. pistillate flower enlarged;
c. staminate flower enlarged.

The chestnut is always a beautiful tree, whether green in summer or glowing golden yellow in autumn; but it is most beautiful during late June and July, when covered with constellations of pale yellow stars. Each of these stars is a rosette of the pollen-bearing blossoms; each ray consists of a catkin often six or eight inches in length, looking like a thread of yellowish chenille fringe; clothing this thread in tufts for its whole length are the stamens, standing out like minute threads tipped with tiny anther balls. If we observe the blossom early enough, we can see these stamens curled up as they come forth from the tiny, pale yellow, six-lobed calyx. One calyx, although scarcely one-sixteenth of an inch across, develops from ten to twenty of these stamens; these tiny flowers are arranged in knots along the central thread of the catkin. No wonder it looks like chenille! There are often as many as thirty of these catkin rays in the star rosette; the lower ones come from the axils of the leaves; but toward the tips of the twig, the leaves are ignored and the catkins have possession. In one catkin I estimated that there were approximately 2,500 stamens developed, each anther packed with pollen. When we think that there may be thirty of the catkins in a blossom-star, we get a glimmering of the amount of pollen produced.

And what is all this pollen for? Can it be simply to fertilize the three or four inconspicuous flowers at the tip of the twig beyond and at the center of the star? These pistillate flowers are little bunches of green scales with some short, white threads projecting from their centers; and beyond them a skimpy continuation of the stem with more little green bunches scattered along it, which are undeveloped pistillate blossoms. The one or two flowers at the base of the stem get all the nourishment and the others do not develop. If we examine one of these nests of green scales, we find that there are six threads belonging to one tiny, green flower with a six-lobed calyx; the six threads are the stigmas, each one reaching out and asking for no more than one grain of the rich shower of pollen.

Chestnut wood is light, rather soft, stiff, coarse and not strong. It is used in cabinet work, cooperage, for telegraph poles and railway ties. When burned as fuel, it snaps and crackles almost equal to hemlock.


Leaves and flowers of chestnut and chestnut oak showing the differences.

Photo by G. F. Morgan.

Lesson CXCIV

The Chestnut

Leading thought—The chestnut is one of our most beautiful trees. We should learn to appreciate it by observing the beauty of its blossoms and of its foliage when green and when brilliant yellow in autumn. Until the chestnut fruit is ripe, it is well protected by its spiny bur.

Method—This study may be begun in the fall when chestnuts are ripe. Ask the boys to describe the trees from which they get this longed-for harvest. The leaves, burs and nuts may be studied in the schoolroom.


1. Where do chestnut trees grow? What is the general form of the head of the tree? How high is the trunk below the branches? Do the branches divide into fine twigs or spray at the tips?

2. Sketch and describe a chestnut leaf, showing the veins, edges and petiole. Are the leaves placed opposite or alternate? What is their color above and below? How do the chestnut leaves differ from those of the beech and of the chestnut oak? What is the color of the chestnut foliage in autumn?

3. Where on the branch is the bur borne? How does the green chestnut bur look? Why is this prickly exterior beneficial to the fruit? Does the bur open easily when green? What causes the chestnut bur to open? Into how many lobes does it open? Describe an open bur outside and in.


Chestnuts in burs.

Photo by Verne Morton.

4. Where in the bur are the chestnuts set? How many in one bur? How can you tell by the shape of the chestnut whether it grew as a twin or single in a bur? Are there ever three in a bur? If so, what shape is the middle one? Do the burs fall when the chestnuts are ripe?

5. Take a single chestnut. Describe its shape and color. What is the mark on its large end? Describe the coloring and covering of the tip. Open the shell and note the lining. Describe how the meat is finally protected. Can you see where the germ is? Plant a chestnut and watch it grow.

6. Study the chestnut blossom in late June or July. What kind of blossoms are those which look like yellow stars all over the tree? Study one of the catkins which makes a ray of the star, and describe it. Can you see the anthers and the pollen? How many of these pollen-bearing flowers are on one stem? Where are the pistillate flowers which will grow into young chestnuts? Describe them.

7. How much are chestnuts worth per bushel? To what uses is chestnut timber put? What is the character of the wood?



Photo by O. L. Foster.