7/5/2018 This highlight should really have appeared two weeks ago, but due to the arrival of ducklings and swallows it had to be postponed. There was no question of leaving it out, however: new horse chestnut leaves are my second favourite spring leaf behind the one I hope will be featured next week, if nothing unexpected happens to delay it once more.
In contrast to the weeping willow, whose early spring glow I enjoy best from a distance, I have to get up close to appreciate the horse chestnut’s new leaves. I love seeing the sticky buds burst open and the leaves slowly break free of their spider’s-web-like covering; but my favourite stage is when the leaves are larger and have become more recognisably those of the horse chestnut. They point downwards like drooping hands. They are light green, almost translucent and oh-so-soft: touching and stroking them is impossible to resist. I can feel my heart leap when I do so.
Perhaps I wouldn’t grow a horse chestnut only for its new leaves. But nevertheless the tree has joyful and comforting associations: its flowers and their wondrous smell have summed up for me the image and fragrance of the month of May since childhood. Neighbours two doors down in London had a large chestnut tree, which – whatever its drawbacks in a city garden – I admired from the upstairs windows of our house and from the garden. Many chestnuts lined the park outside our house and the grounds of my primary school, where I was happy.
My Suffolk garden is home to a horse chestnut tree that I grew from a conker as a child – no doubt originating from the neighbours’ tree. I remember it sitting in its small pot on the bathroom windowsill in London and watching it daily. It is one of the easiest and most satisfying things for a child to grow, though of course sooner or later the question of where to plant it becomes a thorny issue. Luckily our Suffolk garden was able to accommodate most of the far-too-large trees that I had adopted as seedlings during term time, such as a tree of heaven that had self-seeded from another neighbour’s tree before it blew down in the 1987 hurricane.
My father was convinced that the pink chestnut at the top of the garden beside the moat was soon going to die, and so he suggested we plant my chestnut a couple of metres away as a replacement. 25 years or more later, both are still growing happily side by side.