Horse Chestnut

Particolare delle foglie e dei frutti dell’ippocastano (Fotografia di Anna Zaffaroni)
Detail of the leaves of the horse-chestnut tree (Photograph by Anna Zaffaroni)

You get a glimpse of the Oratory of St. Francis upon approaching the historic building of Villa Crivelli Pusterla in Limbiate, close to what remains of a romantic forest. In May and June, the intriguing flower of the Aesculus hippocastanum begins to bloom in this area of the old noble garden; the tree belongs to the Sapindaceae family, and its flowers appear on upright inflorescence cobs which are about 20-30 cm long.

They are white and covered with stains that slowly change colour from yellow to orange and red. This polychromy is linked to the pollination of the single flower. If the flower has not yet been visited by insects, it has a yellow spot, whereas flowers that have been pollinated turn from orange to red warning the insect to rest on another flower which has not yet been fertilized and rich in nectar. The fruits are round capsules up to 6 cm thick, covered with needles and contain one or two shiny brown seeds. A popular saying claims that squeezing these “crazy chestnuts” in your pocket protects one from catching a cold.
The chestnut trees in the park are majestic and reach a height of about 30 meters. A large dome canopy and stout branches characterize them. Reminiscent of the specimens in the garden of Villa Cusani Tittoni Traversi in Desio, they seem to create an enchanting natural stage for the fountain with the statue of Neptune standing in the centre.
The branches, located at the bottom of the canopy, often hang down and allow a close look at the leaves that are deeply etched and up to a maximum of 25 cm. in length. The individual leaves are oval in shape with a very thin base; in the beginning of its development, they are covered with thick brown rust tufts which later remain only at the corners of the ribs. In autumn the leaves take on a striking yellow colour.
The plant, native to the Balkans, became extinct in Europe in the Ice Age and was brought to Vienna and Paris in the 16th century where it spread rapidly in Central and Western Europe. The tree grows on almost all types of soil as long as it has a large space for the roots and leaves.
The horse-chestnut’s bark is gray-brown and smooth, and over time tends to become darker. At Limbiate, horse-chestnut trees are an original contrast with the spotted presence of plane trees (Platanus acerifolia) and the smooth and silver beech (Fagus silvatica).
The name of this tree comes from the Greek word hippo (horse) and kastanon (chestnut), and takes its name from the old Turkish habit of using the fruit to heal coughing horses.
Its fruits are an excellent food for wild animals and are often used in the preparation of drugs because they are rich in tannins, saponines and starch.
These trees were particularly sought after to line avenues and were often planted in gardens of country residences because they guaranteed wide shady pathways, under which aristocrats could take idle strolls or simply engage in delightful dialectics or banter.