Spring passes by so quickly. Only a little while ago I was looking out at the March ice and wistfully writing about the redbud tree, fervently wishing it would finally awaken in crimson blooms. Now most of the glorious trees of spring have bloomed and their flowers have already fallen. The cherry blossoms have come and gone. Summer is on its way with its roses, lilies, and foxgloves, but the trees have largely finished their majestic yearly display. However “largely” does not mean entirely. Walking around my neighborhood this week I have noticed many beautiful shade trees covered with fountaining red blossoms. Since New York City has been busily planting new specimens of every sort of tree, quite a few of these pretty mystery trees are still wearing plastic labels from the nursery (sometimes it is easy to practice dendrology in the city!). It turns out this lovely tree goes by the unlovely common name “red horse chestnut.”
The red horse chestnut tree is not a chestnut tree at all: its name is due to the fact that the horse chestnuts and buckeyes (which comprise the Aesculus family) were once erroneously believed to be related to true chestnuts. The name Aesculus means “edible nuts”, but this name too is a misnomer: the nuts are slightly poisonous, containing alkaloid saponins and glucosides. In fact the red horse chestnut tree I noticed on my way to work this morning isn’t even a naturally occurring species of tree. It is a cultivar between Aesculus hippocastanum, the common horse chestnut tree of Europe, and Aesculus pavia, the red buckeye or firecracker plant—a showy native shrub of the American south.
The Germans have long been fans of Aesculus pavia, the common horse chestnut tree, a large beautiful tree with spreading boughs and big white blossoms which appear in late spring. In Bavaria the horse chestnut tree was planted above the underground storage caves and cellars where lagers were stored. Brewers and beer enthusiasts once cut ice from ponds and rivers and kept it in these insulated shaded cells to cool the beer during summer (in fact lager means storage in German). It is believed that Germans first hybridized their mighty horse chestnuts with the ornamental American buckeye shrubs to obtain a cultivar with the best aspects of both–presumably so the beer gardens would be even more pleasant in May thus making lager drinking even more delightful. The first red horse chestnut trees seem to have appeared in Germany around 1820.
Whatever the case, the red horse chestnut trees in my new neighborhood are certainly very beautiful right now. I hope you have noticed that this miniature essay about horse chestnuts is really an elegy to this year’s fading spring. It was a very lovely season and you only get to enjoy four score or so springs in your life (give or take a few dozen). It is the merry month of May and summer is coming. Now it is time to go outside and sit beneath the horse chestnut trees of your garden and enjoy life with your friends and family.
Genieße das Leben ständig!
Du bist länger tot als lebendig!
(Constantly enjoy life!
You’re longer dead than alive!)