The Indian Horse Chestnut Mystery

A letter from Sir Winston Churchill to the widow of botanist A.B. Jackson

When I was on weekend duty last month I was asked via a radio call from our Visitor Centre if I could go and speak to one of our visitors about a letter that he had from Sir Winston Churchill. You can see the words of Sir Winston in the picture above. The visitor in question was a friendly fellow named Matthew Jackson who had a letter that Churchill had written to his Grandmother in 1947 upon hearing about the sad death of her husband, a Mr A.B. Jackson.

A.B. Jackson, or Albert Bruce Jackson to give him his full name, was a noted botanist and dendrologist who worked at both the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew and the British Museum. Born in 1876 he was also a specialist author on Bryophytes, Spermatophytes and Fungi and Lichen. Of extra interest to me is that among the few books he wrote, one is called ‘Catalogue of Hardy Trees and Shurbs Growing in the Grounds of Syon House’. The gardens at Syon House are the nearest private estate gardens open to the public to where I live.

Aesculus incana
courtesy of http://nigeness.blogspot.co.uk

When A.B. Jackson died in January 1947, Matthew’s letter suggests that Sir Winston was either offered or was in the process of receiving some Indian Horse Chestnut (Aesculus incana) trees from him. Matthew was visiting Chartwell to try and find out if we still had any of these trees in our gardens or as part of the estate. There is only one Aesculus incana tree in our garden plans and it can be found hidden away amongst the magnolias above our Gavin Jones designed cascade rock garden, as shown in the picture below. Having showed this tree to Matthew I later discovered from our plant records that it had unfortunately only been planted in 1983, during the time of the National Trust, and not whilst the Churchill family were still in residence.

The Aesculus incana (circled) doing its best to hide away at Chartwell!

The question we were now asking ourselves is whether this was perhaps planted as a replacement for an existing Indian Horse Chestnut that had fallen? A cousin of our native horse chestnut tree, Aesculus incana is not very frequently seen in the UK. It would maybe seem strange therefore that the National Trust gardeners would have planted it at Chartwell in such a hidden away location! Especially as it has many good points to recommend it. It will grow in any soil, has an open, elegant shape, and has wonderful erect spires of creamy white flowers from May until early summer. The flowers are followed by masses of conkers in the autumn, all in shells which are less spiny than their British counterparts. Unfortunately, as you can see from the picture below, it seems as if it is also suspect to the same leaf miner and leaf blotch fungus as our own species!

There is a spectacular example of an Aesculus incana growing at Kew Gardens. Although there isn’t likely to be any link between A.B. Jackson, who worked at Kew between 1907 and 1910, and this tree which was planted in 1935, you can read more about it here.

The bark of our Aesculus incana specimen here at Chartwell is also quite striking

It is not just Aesculus incana that A.B. Jackson is connected with however. When I was researching A.B. Jackson on the internet for this blog post, the words “Bhutan Pine: Pinus wallichiana A. B. Jackson” cropped up a few times in some scientific articles. When I contact Matthew about this he explained that the family believes that Albert may have attributed the name Pinus wallichiana to the Bhutan Pine. He was an expert on conifers, once writing a book called “A Handbook Of Coniferae, Including Ginkgoaceae” with his colleague William Dallimore in 1923. Matthew has Albert’s personal copy of the book, which includes a reference to the Bhutan Pine. There is a handwritten note in the margin stating “The correct name of the Bhutan Pine according to the rules cannot be P. Excelsa as this name had already been applied by Lamarck to Picea Excelsa. The name P. Wallichiana Jacks is proposed.” Albert Jackson’s story keeps getting more and more interesting!

Pinus wallichiana A. B. Jackson
courtesy of http://www.bioimages.org.uk

The question stills remains about the existence of the Aesculus incana here in Churchill’s gardens though. We have exhausted our research options on this Chartwell conundrum but perhaps you could help us out? Maybe you worked in the gardens here between 1947 when the original trees were offered to Churchill and Chartwell, and 1983 when our younger specimen was planted? If there is anyone out there reading this that could shed some light on our little horticultural mystery then please get in touch. Either way, we hope to see you in the gardens soon. See if you can spot the Indian Horse Chestnut for yourselves…

Jamie

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