Sicily's “Hundred Horse Chestnut” - Treeish Methuselah, mad queens and one of the first acts of nature conservancy ever recorded.

21 August 1745, the probably thousands-of-years old “Hundred Horse Chestnut” tree on the eastern slope of Mount Etna in Sicily, 25 miles north of Catania, was placed under nature protection in in one of the first acts of nature conservancy ever recorded.
“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. Some see Nature all ridicule and deformity, and some scarce see Nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, Nature is Imagination itself.” (William Blake)

A gouache of the chestnut by the French painter Jean-Pierre Houël (1735 – 1813), showing the tree as it looked during the late 1770s, still with the hut built in its shelter that was replaced by various other constructions to house guests later and finally disappeared during the 20th century.

Believed to be between 2,000 and 4,000 years old, the “Hundred Horse Chestnut” is probably the oldest tree in Europe and certainly one of the most ancient living beings on Earth. The tree itself is composed of three trunks above-ground today, leading to a dispute about the accuracy of the Guinness World Record’s entry that it is indeed the plant with the greatest girth ever – 190 ft, measured in 1780. The ancient sweet chestnut awakened the interest of a host of travellers and natural scientists since the 17th century and their influence probably made the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies react with the unusually progressive act to protect the tree already during mid-18th century.

Joanna around the time of her marriage, c. 1496.
Joanna was not just a great beauty in her youth,
but one of the most educated women in Europe,
fluent in several languages.

The “Hundred Horse Chestnut” is named after a local legend, claiming that a Queen Giuvanna, while a-hunting, was caught in a severe thunderstorm and found refuge with her whole retinue under the branches and between the trunks, housing the eponymous hundred horses – and their riders until late in the night. The locals usually added a rather juicy footnote, claiming that the queen found the attention of her various gallants under the sheltering canopy of leaves as well. Who the queen was is uncertain, Joanna the Mad of Spain (1479 – 1555) comes into question, as well as one of the Anjou queens of Naples, Joanna I (1326 – 1382) and Joanna II (1373 – 1435) with the latter having quite a reputation though that might be rooted in her rupture with the papacy when she ruled Naples and Sicily on her own.

The Castagno dei cento Cavalli today

The old chestnut was in grave danger in 1923, when a dispute over the belonging of the tree between two local villages culminated in a fire and using it as a place of event for various celebratory banquets didn’t help to preserve it either, thus the site with various other remarkable nature monuments, among them the “Chestnut of the Ships”, at least 1,000 years old as well, was placed under state supervision. Today, the “Hundred Horse Chestnut” is part of the Parco dell’Etna natural reserve, protected but not causing legends beyond the Guinness Book of Records any more.

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