Kiev’s Spectacular Horse-Chestnut Trees
Horse-chestnut trees (Aeculus hippocastanum) are native to the Balkan mixed forests of South East Europe, including those found in Ukraine. They are also prized as cultivated trees for parks and streets throughout Ukraine and are a prominent feature in Ukraine’s capital city of Kiev. Interestingly, the sweetly-scented, white and pink flower of the horse-chestnut is one of the city’s symbols, and prior to the independence of Ukraine, the horse-chestnut flowers and leaves were depicted on the city’s coat of arms, but these were replaced by a representation of the protector of the city, the Archangel Michael.
Growing to a height of 36 meters, these spectacular trees have a domed crown and stout branches, creating a huge umbrella of shade in the summer months. The leaves consist of five to seven leaflets which change from light to dark green as they grow, and transform into a breathtaking array of gold, copper and bronze as they die off in winter and fall to the ground. The flowers produced in spring consist of panicles with between twenty and fifty flowers on each. Between one and five fruits develop on each of these panicles, and within the green spiky capsule-like shell is a nut-like seed called a horse-chestnut, or conker. While it is thought that the name was derived from the nut having some medicinal value for horses, it is in fact listed as being poisonous to horses.
Horse-chestnut trees became particularly popular in Kiev at the beginning of the nineteenth century and were planted along streets and in parks, with many spectacular specimens located at the Orthodox monastery of Pechersk Lavra. When the botanical garden was laid out in the grounds of the university in the late 1830s, a number of horse-chestnut saplings were planted, some of which can still be seen today as huge trees. Although, horse-chestnut trees can thrive in the wild for hundreds of years, the pollution of city-living is not as kind to these magnificent trees, and their average lifespan is around one hundred years. But in Kiev there are a number of horse-chestnuts that are around two hundred years old – still being appreciated for their beauty which changes with the passing seasons.