[This year I have decided to study two big Horse Chestnut trees near our house. This is Part 2 of my sketchbook-learnings.]
February was hostile. Storms everywhere, wet almost every day, icy winds. Not the ideal weather for visiting trees with the baby. We did manage a few trips along to check up on our big beauties though. This month I was mostly interested in their bark. They wear their bark like scaly armour. It bears the signs and scars of years of February storms.
Bark is the outer layer of the branches, trunk and roots of a tree. It is essential for the survival of a tree as it protects it from the elements, like the wild winds of February, but also from being dried out by the sun. Bark also wards off fungi, insects and mammals that would love to scoff the sugar-rich sap or the wood that surrounds it. Bark can also be the host to a niche eco-system of bark dwellers and feeders. I think us humans create our own bark with the people we have around us. If we are lucky, our people are a strong ring of bark that help to protect us from the worst of life’s elements. They also teach us how to be generous hosts. If we are unlucky, our people aren’t very good at that and we build hard shells to keep everyone out. I consider myself very lucky. I’m surrounded by the best Bark People a girl could have.
Horse Chestnut bark is smooth and a greyish pinky colour when the tree is young. It then darkens and develops scaly plates with age. The timber it protects is a light creamy brown. Smooth and soft, it is not often used commercially.
I hadn’t realised that Horse Chestnuts are not native to the UK. They are, in fact, native to the Balkan Peninsula and were introduced to the UK from Turkey in the late 16th c. They are rarely found in woodland. Instead they thrive in parks and line streets. Drygrange is the estate land around a big house – Drygrange Hall – which was built in 1887. The estate land consists of sizeable woodland leading down to the River Leader. In this context, the presence of a number of wonderful Horse Chestnuts makes sense as the land combines Victorian tastes for parkland trees (and many, many rhododendrons) and established woodland. I wonder if either of my chestnuts would date back as far as Mr Edward Sprot and his commissioning of a country pile? I think one of my missions must be to age my two trees. Anyone know how to age a living Horse Chestnut?
[Just to clarify, we do not live in Drygrange Hall! It was a seminary until the 80s and is now a care home. We are not landed gentry. We live in a normal-person house on the estate.]
Is it generally agreed that February is the toughest month of the year? I blame the snowdrops. Up they pop in January heralding spring and hope and new life. Then February trots along, pretending to be the shortest month of the year, but actually being dark, wild and endless. The days are getting noticeably longer, though, and the wild garlic is growing green underfoot. Let’s see what March brings.
P.S. Here’s a picture of a 300-year-old Chestnut that could be Britain’s oldest tree: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/nov/29/a-300-year-old-horse-chestnut-tree-named-uks-largest