Chestnut tree: the Cévennes’ breadfruit tree

The chestnut tree (Castanea sativa) is a majestic tree. It can reach 40-metre height and its trunk can measure up to 3 metres in diameter at the base. A same tree has male and female flowers which grow on long catkins. After pollination, the female flowers become bugs where 2 or 3 chestnuts will grow.

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This tree, which needs a schist or granite subsoil, is the tree-symbol of the Cévennes, where it is very abundant. Chestnuts have been grown there since the Middle Age, under the Benedictine priories’ leadership. And in the 16th century, chestnuts have become the main crop in the Cévennes valleys. For a long time, these fruits remained the staple diet for the inhabitants of the area. That’s why the chestnut tree has been called “the breadfruit tree“. Chestnuts are particularly nutritious as they are rich in starch. They can be eaten fresh, roasted or boiled, dried or processed into flour. The “clède” is the little traditional building where chestnuts are dried over wood during several days. The “badjanat“, a chestnut soup, is a traditional meal in the Cévennes.

There are many cultivated chestnut varieties, chosen for the great taste of the fruits. Conserving wild varieties is however important for pollination. In fact, cultivated varieties are never self-fruitful and have less pollen.

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Chestnuts can be sweet or savoury, in main courses, desserts or jam…

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The flowers of the chestnut tree are pale yellow and, as a satisfactory source of honey, are foraged by bees in June.

Since the end of the Middle Age, the old hollow logs of chestnut trees, which are rot-proof, have been used in the Cévennes to make hives. The log is covered by a lauze (a sort of flat stone) as a roof. These “log-hives” were very common until the first half of the 20th century. Then they have been gradually replaced by modern framehives. However some beekeepers still uphold the tradition of “log-hives”.

 

Photo credits: H. Normand and G. Normand