Sweet Chestnut

(Castanea sativa) The English tree, introduced by the Romans, is not one of the special nut varieties developed by Italian growers (see Rackham. 1976). The nuts sold in England are nearly always imported from Spain (hence the name Spanish Chestnut, for it was said that the best nuts came from there). In Provence, chestnuts are regarded as female fertility symbols (Alford. 1978), and such a belief was probably wider spread than that. The dream books, for instance, told us that to dream of eating chestnuts was a good sign for an unmarried girl. It meant that someone would soon be coming to court her. For a married woman, it was a sign of sickness (Raphael). A Portuguese method of divining whether a baby will be a boy or girl is to spit on a chestnut and throw it into the fire. If it bursts, the child will be a boy, while if it only fizzles feebly it will be a girl (Gallop). As the husk is surrounded by thorns, it is the symbol of chastity (Ferguson).

Theophrastus reported that the wood was used for roof timbers in the ancient world, and cited a case where chestnut beams in a public bath gave warning before they broke, so that all the people in the building were able to get out before the roof collapsed (Meiggs). Taylor. 1812 reckoned there was a "deceitful brittleness in it which renders it unsafe to be used as beams". He also said that bread had been made with the nuts, and flour is still made in Italy, where chestnuts assume great importance as a foodstuff (Rackham. 1986).

The nuts, bark and leaves can all be used for coughs of any kind, including whooping cough (Page. 1978). The tannin content of both the bark and leaves make them (and the nuts) useful for diarrhoea, and an infusion can be used as an expectorant for bronchitis. Gypsies say the powdered nuts are good for piles. That may be true, but they even wear the nut in a little bag round the neck as a charm to prevent piles, but the bag, they say, must never be made of silk (Vesey-Fitzgerald).

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