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Kyiv’s horse chestnut trees — emblematic and ubiquitous
The city of Kyiv is graced with copious numbers of horse chestnut trees, which line many of its streets and provide shade in summer, visual and olfactory delight at the time of vernal blossoming, and golden display in autumn in Kyiv’s numerous parks. Sashko Panivsky, who is a horse chestnut enthusiast, has done some research into the horse chestnuts of Kyiv.
The horse chestnuts are again in bloom,
And the waves of the mighty Dnipro boom,
And they all dispel an unwelcome gloom,
And I feel so youthful and abloom!
(from a waltz-tuned Ukrainian song popular
in the 1960s; lyrics by Andriy Malyshko,
and music by Platon Mayboroda, both remarkable
cultural figures of that time)
Before I declare my love for the horse chestnuts which stand out conspicuously among thousands upon thousands of other trees to be seen in Kyiv, let me tell you a little story first, in which I find confirmation that I am not alone in my fascination with the horse chestnuts (in fact, I’m sure there are very many horse chestnut lovers!).
Last autumn, on a Saturday, I arranged with my date to meet her “at the fountain in that skver in front of the Ivan Franko Drama Theater” (skver does not translate well into English — it’s a sort of a public garden, which is tempted to render as pleasance, but is rather a very small park, complete with short alleys, large benches and often enhanced by a fountain).
The day was warm and bathed in sunshine, the time was noon. I did not expect my date to arrive on time (she never did), so I was prepared to wait. I strolled across the park, then around it, took a long appreciative look at the dry fountain, and then settled down on the only empty bench which stood across a grassy patch from the fountain but nevertheless offered a clear view of the fount.
The majestic horse chestnut trees that lined the square-shaped park on all the four sides provided my eyes with an endless opportunity of enjoying the gorgeous display of autumnal gold in many tints. I was so absorbed by this spectacle that had my date arrived at that fountain, I would have missed her arrival. A polite voice brought me back to the reality of the bench, “Do you mind if I sit down?”
An elderly man was standing at the other still unoccupied end of the long and “voluminous” bench. “No, I don’t mind, sure, please sit down,” I said. All the other benches were occupied by couples of various ages or by giggling girls.
He was bearded, neatly, even a bit extravagantly dressed, and as soon as he settled down he seemed to become absorbed by the golden display the way I was a moment before. I could not suppress my desire to share my admiration, “Isn’t it lovely? I mean these golden leaves?”
The man did not respond immediately but then, emerging from his reverie, he said, “Oh, yes, indeed.” We fell into conversation, and that’s what he told me (it’s not verbatim, of course, but very close, I hope):
“I used to live here, in that big house (he pointed) that faces the square and then goes up that street. My father was an actor who worked in this theater. I must have been a loner as a kid and preferred books and gazing at the flowers, butterflies and leaves turning yellow and red, to rambunctious games with my age peers. It is in this little garden — some of these trees survived since before the war (WWII), you know — that I spent many an hour reading. Incidentally on the bench that used to stand at this very spot — and watching the jets of water rising above the fountain, or gazing at the candle-like blossoms of the horse chestnuts. When in full bloom, they also exuded a delicate fragrance which filled the air already freshened by the fountain. And mind you, there were no exhaust gases from the automobiles to interfere with the scent — there was practically no traffic here. The blossoms of these tress were — and are — white, though I’ve seen some reddish-pinkish ones elsewhere in town…
In school, I was almost always at the bottom of my class, I hated having to memorize all those silly things that the text books contained, and I was always eagerly looking forward to the end of the last term in late spring so that I could come here with a book and, surrounded and shielded by the blossoming chestnuts, escape into the exciting world of adventures in ancient times or in the intergalactic space in the future… The end of summer was a very melancholy time for me because of the resumption of classes in school, but these horse chestnut trees provided a relief in the form of changing colors and by producing ripe horse chestnuts, which, for some reason, was more fun to knock down from the branches with sticks thrown at them, than to pick them up from the ground. I created all sorts of little figurines from the beautiful brown nuts which looked as though made of precious wood — if you connect the hole nuts or their pieces with matchsticks you can get “horses,” “donkeys,” “dragons” or silly little creatures which you can give as gifts to the girls, your classmates, you fancy…Yes, I love these trees. This park and these trees are the only things I’m nostalgic about in this town…”
At that moment I realized that my name was being called out and I saw my date standing by the fountain and frantically waving to me. I sprang up from the bench, apologized for my abrupt leaving and joined my date who showed signs of displeasure at my taking “too long to finish talking with that old man” and with my being “too slow to join her and express the inexpressible joy of seeing her again.”
In my hurry, I never asked the man’s name but I was glad I had met a horse chestnut tree enthusiast like me. Strangely enough, my girlfriend did not share my enthusiasm. My proposal to proceed to another park, “just a ten-minute walk from here”, and “a much bigger one too, and all ablaze in the golden horse chestnut glory,” was turned down. “Let’s have a cake, a coffee somewhere, and then let’s go see a movie. There’s an American comedy showing at the movie house down the street…”
Speaking of cakes — there is a large, two-pound cake being produced in Kyiv which is called Kyiyvsky. It is a round thing, adorned on top with cream flowers and candied fruits, and filled with nuts inside; the box it comes in is embellished with the stylized picture of the ubiquitous horse chestnut leaves topped with a candle-like blossom. They began making this brand of cake in the nineteen-sixties and it still “sells like hotcakes” (sorry for the silly pun).
Incidentally, the horse chestnut leaves and blossom used to feature on the coat of arms of the city of Kyiv too. After Ukraine’s independence, the representation of the Archangel Michael, protector of the city, displaced the horse chestnut on the city’s coat of arms, but luckily enough, horse chestnuts remain as ubiquitous as they used to be (I’ve noticed though that in some parts of town, particularly along the busiest roads, horse chestnuts are ailing — as early as in the mid-summer, their leaves turn sickly brown and wilt).
Horse chestnuts experienced a considerable growth in popularity in Kyiv in the first half of the nineteenth century. It is believed that though horse chestnuts trees were to be seen in many parts of the then town, in and around the biggest Orthodox monastery of Pechersk Lavra in particular, the commercial trade in saplings and seedlings began in the 1820s. A number of horse chestnut trees were planted along the street now known as Shevchenko Boulevard, and elsewhere. Among the many city legends that are connected with various streets, buildings and parts of town and various notable personalities, there is one that deals with the presence of poplars there instead of original horse chestnuts.
This legend has it that in the nineteen-thirties the Russian Emperor Nicholas I paid a royal visit to Kyiv. Riding along the boulevard which was adorned with young horse chestnuts, His Majesty was displeased by the “scanty appearance of the wispy trees” and ordered to have them removed and “stately poplars planted instead.” The order was fulfilled, and instead of horse chestnuts which would surely grow in time to their mature magnificence, the street acquired poplars which continue to line it up along all of its length from top to bottom, running in two rows in the middle of the street (incidentally, along the sidewalks you can see horse chestnuts which obviously need some medical attention).
In the late 1830s, behind the central building of the university which had been built several years earlier, a botanical garden began to be laid out. The design for it was provided by the architect who also designed the university, Vikentiy Beretti. In the early 1840s, many horse chestnuts were planted there and some of them are still living! In the wild, it is believed horse chestnuts can live for several hundred years, but in cities they die earlier, their worst enemy being air pollution. Yet, Kyiv boasts a number of horse chestnuts that are about two hundred years old!
There are no sweet chestnuts in Kyiv and horse chestnuts that litter the streets in the fall are left there to be trampled on or swept by street sweepers. I always feel sorry seeing so much fruits, even though totally inedible, go to waste. But maybe it is even for the better that horse chestnuts are appreciated in Kyiv not for their nutritional value but for the beauty of the trees that produce them.
I firmly hold an opinion that it is thanks to the horse chestnut trees rather than to its architecture that the central street of Kyiv, Khreshchatyk, owes its handsome appearance.
Photos by Serhiy HOROBETS
and Olena KURSHYN
Horse Chestnut, common name for a family of trees, and especially for the species known as the common horse chestnut. Horse chestnuts make up the family Hippocastanaceae; the common horse chestnut is classified as Aesculus hippocastanum; the family, which contains about 15 species. Horse chestnuts occur in the North Temperate Zone. The trees are characterized by large winter buds covered with sticky scales; opposite, palmate leaves; and large clusters of attractive yellow, red, or whitish irregular flowers with four or five petals. The fruits are spiky capsules containing large, brown seeds.
Horse chestnuts are often grown as ornamentals. The common horse chestnut is a native of Europe but has been widely planted in North America since colonial days. Most of the other members of the genus, commonly called buckeyes, are popular ornamental and shade trees.
The Chestnut tree (Castanea) belongs to the same Fagaceae family as the Oak and Beech trees. There are four main species, commonly known as European, Chinese, Japanese and American.
Chestnuts should not be confused with either Horse Chestnuts (genus Aesculus), or Water Chestnut (family Cyperaceae); these are unrelated to Castanea and are named for producing nuts of similar appearance but of no notable edibility.
The oldest horse chestnut tree in Kyiv is to be seen
in the territory of Kytayivsky Monastery; this tree
is believed to be over 300 years old; its height is
15 meters and its trunk girth is 4.15 meters.
The pink blossoms of a horse chestnut tree
(in general, horse chestnut trees in Kyiv are
of three colors: white, pink and red).
The famous Kyiyvsky tort (cake) in its traditional
round box with the stylized horse chestnut trees
on its cover.[Prev][Contents][Next]