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Title: Chestnut tree
Original Title: Chataigner, Le
Volume and Page: Vol. 3 (1753), pp. 237–3:240
Author: Pierre Daubenton (le Subdélégué) (biography)
Translator: Ann-Marie Thornton [Bilkent University, Ankara, Turkey]
Subject terms:
Original Version (ARTFL): Link
Source: Russell, Terence M. and Anne Marie Thornton. Gardens and landscapes in the Encyclopédie of Diderot and D'Alembert : the letterpress articles and selected engravings. Aldershot: Ashgate, 1999. Used with permission.

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Citation (MLA): Daubenton, Pierre (le Subdélégué). "Chestnut tree." The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Ann-Marie Thornton. Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2013. Web. [fill in today's date in the form 18 Apr. 2009 and remove square brackets]. <>. Trans. of "Chataigner, Le," Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, vol. 3. Paris, 1753.
Citation (Chicago): Daubenton, Pierre (le Subdélégué). "Chestnut tree." The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Ann-Marie Thornton. Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2013. (accessed [fill in today's date in the form April 18, 2009 and remove square brackets]). Originally published as "Chataigner, Le," Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, 3:237–3:240 (Paris, 1753).

Chestnut tree. [1] The chestnut tree is a large tree which is held in high esteem, far more for its diverse uses than for any pleasure it may afford. It is native to the temperate climates of Western Europe, where it was formerly more widespread. It has a broad trunk which grows correspondingly tall, often as tall as the mightiest oaks: the trunk is usually straight and long right up to the boughs, and is well proportioned. The small branches forming the crown have a smooth, dark bark patched with grey and are covered with fairly large, oblong leaves of a pleasant green, which are saw-toothed and provide much shade. In May, the tree bears finger- length catkins of a yellow-green colour. The chestnuts generally appear in threes separately from the catkins, in prickly burs which open of their own accord near the end of September when the nuts are ripe.

This tree, due to its size and utility, justly ranks among the foremost forest trees, and it is generally thought that it should be second only to the oak, though it has some qualities which are lacking in the oak: the chestnut grows twice as rapidly, produces more wood, thrives in sites of a less favourable aspect and in poorer soil, and is less subject to attack by insects.

Since chestnut wood is of such high quality, it is regrettable that forests of this tree, which was formerly so widespread, are now so rare. The frameworks of most ancient buildings are made from this wood, especially beams, of such a span that we can surmise that it would have been too costly and difficult to have had the trees brought from a distance, and that they were instead taken from neighbouring forests. However, this tree is no longer found in the forests of several provinces where there are a number of ancient chestnut-wood frameworks. What may have caused these trees to disappear other than unseasonable weather, long cold winters, or excessive heat and drought? The latter probably explains the disappearance of the chestnut from several regions: this tree likes the tops of north-facing mountains, sandy soil, and especially plantations which retain or receive moisture. Long periods of drought and excessive heat are therefore wholly unsuited to chestnut groves. If it were objected that a number of chestnuts remain in countries which are more southerly than the regions in which these trees are thought to have died out in view of the large number of chestnut-wood frameworks which have been found there, and that as a consequence neither excessive heat nor drought could have caused the trees to perish, one could respond by saying that since the regions in which chestnuts are found - the mountains of Galicia and the Pyrenees in Spain, the Cévennes, Limousin, Vivarais, and Dauphiné in France, and the slopes of the Apennines in Italy - are closer to the south, they are better placed to receive coolness and moisture than for example Paris, even though Paris is more northerly. The reason for this is that snow, which is both deeper and longer-lasting on the mountains of the countries we have just mentioned than anywhere else, retains the moisture which is so necessary to chestnuts well into the summer. But, one could argue, if these trees were destroyed by certain atmospheric conditions or bad weather of some sort, why did they not reappear in time or in more seasonable weather, like other trees in the same climate which multiply gradually and by quite simple means? The wind, birds, and a few animals chase, carry, and disperse winged seeds, berries, acorns, etc. and contribute more effectively than man to vegetative propagation. However, I think that nature’s apparent reluctance to replant chestnuts may yet be explained: these trees need a favourable aspect and soil in order to thrive, whereas other trees in the same climate grow almost equally well in any soil and consequently fail far less frequently. They may make little progress in unsuitable soil, but in similar circumstances chestnuts would decay noticeably, even when cultivated. Moreover, vegetation, as we know, migrates as it becomes thwarted by atmospheric changes, bad weather, weathering, or changes in the earth’s surface. An apparent reduction in the level of moisture caused by the extensive clearance or destruction of a number of forests, which would reduce the frequency and quantity of vapour and dew, may best explain the migration of the chestnut tree, since moisture is so vital to its growth and health. However, in some northern provinces several chestnut groves have been planted which have either thrived or promise to thrive. Since this tree should be preferred to so many others, steps will hopefully be taken to reintroduce it into every suitable terrain. [2]

Exposure, terrain: first and foremost, chestnut groves need the most suitable exposure and soil; nothing can compensate for this deficiency. The chestnut thrives in cool, dark, shady places or on hilltops facing the north or the north wind. It grows vigorously in soft, dark soils which, though fine and light, have a clay base, or in which silt is mixed with sand or grit, which is preferable. It can also tolerate sandy or gritty soil if it is moist or at least deep, but red or hard soils and swamps are unsuited to it. Finally, it cannot tolerate clay or soil which is sallow and saline.

When these trees are planted in suitable soil, they form the most beautiful timber-tree plantations: they become tall, straight, and extremely full; they may be planted closer than oaks and grow twice as quickly. Chestnuts also make extremely good copsewood: sturdy poles may be made from them and after only twenty years they produce fine service wood. [3]

Sowing: chestnuts may be planted either in autumn when they are ripe or in spring when the land is ready to be cultivated. However, these two seasons have their drawbacks: if the chestnuts are sown in autumn, which is in other respects the most suitable time, they may provide food for rats, fieldmice, moles, etc. which are fond of them and destroy them almost completely, especially when they have been sown in furrows, which is notwithstanding the best method. These animals follow every track of freshly turned earth and leave no trace of anything which may serve to nourish them. This explains why some people sow chestnuts only in spring, in which case care must be taken to preserve them during the intervening period. If only a small number are to be kept, they are first spread out on a granary floor where they are left for two weeks in order to sweat and exude excess moisture, and then placed between sand beds in either boxes or baskets, which must be packed closely together in a dry place and protected from frost. The chestnuts are removed from these containers only when they are to be sown, either in February or at the beginning of March when the season permits. If one were to wait any longer, the chestnut seeds would become long, bent, and liable to break when they are removed from the baskets or planted. But if a sufficient quantity are needed for large groves, since it would be cumbersome to pack them tightly in baskets, they may be stored in an open greenhouse during the winter. To this end, they are spread on a granary floor while they are being gathered in the manner described above and left for a period of three weeks or a month. Following this, it is claimed that in order to remove those which are sterile, they should be tested by being placed in a tub of water, and those which float on the surface rejected, even though experiment has shown that the majority of these have grown successfully. [4] A bed of loose earth two or three inches deep, depending on the number of seeds, is then piled up on dry ground, a bed of chestnuts of the same depth is placed on top, and so on, with alternate beds of soil and chestnuts, finishing with a layer of soil at least six inches deep to shelter the chestnuts from frost. A layer of straw spread on top will protect them further.

Large groves: we will quote Miller on the method of forming chestnut groves: ‘Having given two or three ploughings to destroy the weeds, make furrows six feet apart, place the chestnuts in the furrows at intervals of ten inches, and cover them with about three inches of earth. When the chestnuts have come up, make sure that you clear them of weeds, and after three or four years, if they have thrived, remove several in the spring, so that the remaining seedlings are at intervals of three feet in the rows. This spacing will suffice for another three or four years, following which alternate seedlings may be removed to leave room for the remaining trees, which will then be spaced at intervals of six feet. They may remain there until they are eight or ten years old and are broad enough to make hoops, hop-poles, etc., for which they should be used in preference to other trees. Half of the seedlings may then be cut back to just above ground level, selecting the weakest. Every ten years a new felling may be effectuated, which will pay the interest on the land and other ancillary costs, without taking account of the considerable number of remaining trees which will form a grove and continue to grow until the area of twelve feet squared is no longer sufficient. When these trees are broad enough to make small planks, the distance between them may consequently be increased to twenty-four feet squared by a felling of alternate trees. This will allow the remaining trees to grow and give air to the coppices, which will benefit the trees greatly. The fellings will more than pay for the outlay on the grove, the interest on the land, and all other costs, so that the remaining large trees will be pure profit. I leave everyone to imagine the great fortune an inheritor will acquire after eighty years, which is the time needed for these trees to mature.’ [5]

There is another method of forming large chestnut groves which is now commonly practised and is thought better than sowing chestnuts in furrows. Planting holes are made at more or less equal distances depending on the quality of the terrain. Three or four chestnuts are then planted on the edge of each hole, in the loose soil which was removed when the holes were being dug. Two or three years later, one can uproot the puny and superfluous seedlings and attempt to transplant the seedlings into the open ground, where they should then be cut back to one inch above ground level. One can see why this method was devised and preferred: chestnut groves are usually planted in sandy soil, which is the most suitable and has the greatest need for moisture to be carefully retained. Moreover, chestnuts need to come up and take root easily during the first year. The planting holes referred to above combine each of these advantages: the loose soil surrounding the holes helps the chestnuts to spring up, and the small, adjacent hollow favours the progress of the roots which always seek to pivot, and keeps them cool by gathering and retaining moisture.

Sowing chestnuts in the nursery, transplantation: when one has small groves upon which more attention may be lavished, the chestnuts are sown in a drill in loose soil which is prepared in the usual manner and arranged in lands. Six inches are left between the drills and the chestnuts are planted four inches apart to a depth of three inches. Assuming that they are then cultivated as normal, they may be replanted in the tree nursery after two years, at intervals of at least one foot in rows spaced 2-3 feet apart. October is the best month for transplanting the seedlings if the soil is dry and light, or the end of February if the soil is rich and slightly moist. The seedlings must be carefully uprooted beforehand, and those which are weak or bent pollarded and any taproots removed. Then, while they are in the tree nursery they must be given a light digging in spring and, where necessary, hoed in summer. Their lateral branches should be removed gradually and those which are low or languid cut back to three inches above the ground in order to make them grow back more vigorously. After three or four years, they can be used to provide shade in avenues, or embellish bosquets. These trees, like oaks and walnuts, never benefit from being transplanted, which should be avoided if one intends them to grow into timber trees. This is because the chestnut has a thicker and longer taproot than any other tree, and since it has most to lose from the removal of the broader branches, one should try to avoid pollarding it when it is being transplanted.

Grafting: if you wish to cultivate the chestnut in order to improve the quality of the fruit, it must be grafted. It is then called a ‘Marron de Lyon’. For a long period, the most common method was flute grafting because this mode of grafting works better on the chestnut than on any other tree, but since it is difficult and often risky to execute, shield budding using a shot bud rather than a dormant bud is currently the preferred method. One can also try cleft grafting, where the graft thrives when it takes again, though this happens rarely. [6]

Chestnuts can also be propagated by layering, but this method is rarely used except for procuring seedlings of exotic trees belonging to the same genus.

Use: chestnut wood makes excellent timber and is second only to oak wood, having almost the same density, volume, and quality, even though it is white and of medium hardness, which does not however make the heartwood and sapwood indistinguishable. For many purposes it is as good as the finest oak wood, and for some it is even better, for example when it is used to make liquid containers, because unlike most other woods it will neither expand nor contract once it has been well seasoned. Chestnut wood is suitable for a whole range of large or small objects: it is used in carpentry, cooperage, and for making fences, trellis-work, and vine stakes. The latter may last for seven years even with the bark, which is twice as long as other types of wood. It is also used for making hooped staves for vats and barrels, sculptures, and conduits, as it erodes more slowly than elmwood and many other woods. However, chestnut wood compares unfavourably with oak wood for heating with regard to the quality of its charcoal and especially that of its cinders: chestnut wood crackles and gives out little heat; it burns quickly, though this may be useful for workmen using forges, and if its cinders are used in washing, they stain cloth indelibly.

Chestnuts: the fruit of this tree is extremely useful; the climate contributes greatly to its quality and especially its size. Portuguese chestnuts are larger than ours and English chestnuts are the smallest. It has been claimed that the nuts last longer when they are picked from the tree before they fall. The crop varies each year and a bumper crop is produced only every other year. In order to preserve the nuts, one must place them in beds of dry sand, cinders, or fern, or leave them in their burs. Mountain dwellers live on this fruit during the winter: they dry it on racks, shell it, and grind it for making bread which, though nourishing, is heavy and hard to digest. See the following article, Chestnuts. [7]

Leaves: one virtue of this tree is that it is not subject to attack by insects, which do not feed on its leaves while there is a plentiful supply on other trees; this may be because the leaves of the chestnut are either too hard and dry or simply not to their taste. Poor country dwellers stuff their beds with these leaves instead of feathers, and if they are gathered as soon as they have fallen, before they become damp, they make good litter.

There are other species and a few varieties of this tree.

The ‘Marron de Lyon’ is simply a cultivar obtained by grafting, which perfects the fruit by improving its size and flavour. In all other respects it resembles the chestnut. The ‘Marron de Lyon’ thrives in France only in the mountains of the south, such as the Cévennes, Vivarais, and Dauphiné, from where it is transported to Lyons, which is why it is called ‘Marron de Lyon’. See Marron de Lyon. [8]

Variegated ‘Marron de Lyon’: this is a fine tree for those who like this sort of variety, which is brought about simply by a type of disease in the tree. Moreover, this tree is rarer than other chestnut trees. It can be propagated by shield budding and even more successfully by inarching on the common chestnut. Dry, light soil is required for the coloured pattern of the leaves, which is its principal merit, to last, because the tree regains its vigour in better soil and the variegation gradually disappears.

Dwarf-branching chestnut: this is thought to be merely a spontaneous variety of the common chestnut and not a distinct and consistent species. Miller states that it is not worth cultivating and Ray claims that the fruit, which is no bigger than a hazelnut, has an unpleasant flavour. [9]

Virginian chestnut or chinquapin: the chinquapin, though common in America, is still very rare, even in England where foreign trees are so sought after by collectors. [10] I will consequently take my description from Catesby and Miller: this shrub is not delicate or difficult to grow; its rarety derives rather from carelessness in the shipping of the seeds and especially from neglecting to put them in sand which preserves them during transportation. [11] Chinquapins rarely grow to more than sixteen feet in America and are usually only eight or ten feet tall. They grow spasmodically and gain proportionately greater breadth than height: it is not uncommon to see some with a girth of two feet. The bark of the chinquapin is rough and scaley, and the leaves, which are dark green above and whitish beneath, are dentate and alternate. They resemble the leaves of our sweet chestnut but are much smaller. In spring, the chinquapin bears catkins which are quite similar to those of the sweet chestnut. It produces a large number of conical chestnuts which are the same size as hazelnuts, and the same colour and texture as sweet chestnuts. They grow in bunches of five or six nuts which hang together and each have their own bur. They ripen in September, are sweet, and taste better than our sweet chestnuts. Indians make great use of them and stock up with them for the winter. The chinquapin is so hardy that it survives the harshest English winters in the open ground. However, it cannot tolerate excessive heat, which causes it to perish, especially if it is planted in very dry soil, though it cannot tolerate soil which is too moist, because if the soil were to retain water for a sustained period during the winter it could cause the shrub to perish. It rarely propagates other than from seed, and the seeds should be planted as soon as they arrive: if the following winter is harsh, it is advisable to cover the ground with leaves, tan, or pea stubble in order to prevent frost from penetrating and damaging the seeds. Inarching on the common chestnut has been attempted but is rarely successful.

The American chestnut with large leaves and fruit: the discovery of this tree is attributed to père Plumier, who found it in the French settlements of America. [12] This tree is not yet common in France and is extremely rare in England: Miller mentions it only in the sixth edition of his dictionary, dated 1752. In this edition, Miller states that he has hitherto seen only three or four seedlings of this tree which have made little progress, that the seeds may be sent from Carolina where the tree thrives and sown and cultivated like those of the chinquapin in an open but sheltered site, that this tree differs from our sweet chestnut merely in that there are four chestnuts enclosed in each bur whereas a sweet- chestnut bur contains only three, that the bur or outer covering of the four chestnuts is thick and so prickly that it is as difficult to handle as the spines of a hedgehog, and that these chestnuts are sweet and wholesome but smaller than ours. [13]


1. Now ‘châtaignier’. This is Castanea sativa, the common, sweet, or Spanish chestnut tree. Daubenton’s article is a free adaptation of article ‘ Castanea ’, Miller, 1752. For Miller’s original text, see Appendix 2.

2. These observations are of considerable interest in the context of similar discussions bearing upon contemporary ecological issues.

3. In Kent and Sussex, thousands of acres of chestnut coppice are grown for the production of palings (Mabey, 1996, p. 82).

4. Daubenton here disputes Miller’s recommendation. See Appendix 2.

5. See ibid.

6. See article ‘Greffe’.

7. The chestnut was brought to Britain by the Romans, possibly to provide a local supply of chestnut flour for the soldiers (Mabey, 1996, p. 81).

8. The author uses the word ‘variété’ (variety) rather than ‘franc’ (cultivar).

9. In Miller, 1752 (see Appendix 2) and Ray, 1686-1704.

10. Castanea pumila.

11. On Mark Catesby and Miller, see Appendix 2.

12. This is Castanea dentata. The reference to Charles Plumier (1646-1704) is taken from Miller: see Appendix 2.

13. See Appendix 2.