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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Ode to chestnuts

The symbol of Kyiv blossoms throughout the city
24 May, 2011 - 00:00

Chestnut season is underway in the capital. The appearance of white-yellow and pink-red chestnut “candles” has been anticipated; still it came out of the blue. It is impossible to imagine Kyiv without them, like we cannot imagine Japanese cities without cherry trees, or Spanish ones — without palms. Chestnuts have become an integral part of the city’s life. Both Kyiv residents and guests of the city feast their eyes on them, and the communal services take care of them. Incidentally, the latter estimate that Kyiv has nearly two million of these decorative trees.

Kyiv residents have come to love the chestnuts for their beautiful colors so much that these trees became the symbol of the Ukrainian capital. In Soviet times chestnut leaves were depicted on the city’s coat of arms. Now these trees (kashtany in Ukrainian) are honored in various names: Kashtanova St., the Kyivsky kashtany pastry, the Kyivsky cake (whose wrapping depicts this tree’s flowers and leaves), even a kindergarten called Kyivsky kashtany. Poets dedicate songs and verse to these trees — Andrii Malyshko has a poem, “Chestnuts are in Blossom Again”; artists paint them (several years ago the capital held an exhibit called Kyiv’s Chestnuts), and the charity action Chestnut Race held in the end of May is another tradition.


There is no unanimous version of when chestnuts appeared in Kyiv. The most popular one is that the trees were purchased in 1842 to adorn the university boulevard (now Tarasa Shevchenka boulevard, previously Bibikovsky boulevard). When Nicholas I, who was on a visit in Kyiv then, heard this, he made such a face that his subordinates thought he did not approve of the decision. Therefore the trees were dug out and thrown away. So city residents took them to their houses: at the time Kyiv was made up of one-storey houses with gardens and kitchen gardens. Thus, Kyiv’s chestnuts were here to stay.

Yet this version may simply be an urban legend. Vitalii Kovalynsky, head of the city development department at the Museum of Kyiv’s History, explained that chestnuts appeared in Kyiv much earlier, back in the 18th century.

“There are many versions of how chestnuts came to Kyiv, but the one connected with Nicholas I has no proof to back it up whatsoever. The tsar did not come to Kyiv in 1842,” the scholar explained, “According to the book Russkie gosudari v Kieve (Russian Monarchs in Kyiv), published in 1896, Nicholas I came to Kyiv several times. First he came in 1837, but there was no talk about the trees. Then he came in 1840 and visited the Kyiv Cave Monastery and the university. The next time the tsar came to Kyiv was in 1843. So the version saying that chestnuts started spreading in Kyiv in 1842 is not real. Conversely, in his book Istoria goroda Kieva (The History of Kyiv), published back in 1799, the renowned historian Maksym Berlinsky described Kyiv’s chestnuts as ‘wild,’ because their fruits were not edible, and also writes that Kyiv residents ‘grew chestnut trees in gardens only for decoration and flowers.’”

No matter when the blooming symbols appeared in Kyiv, one thing is clear: the trees were immediately appreciated by Kyivans. At first they were planted purely for decoration, like in case with the courtyard of the Kyiv Cave Monastery and the Klov Palace garden. Like roses nowadays, they were grown in private gardens and considered an aristocratic and refined plant. The researcher Kovalynsky mentions an interesting incident. When the famous pedagogue Kostiantyn Ushynsky was being buried at the Vydubychi Monastery in 1871 a chestnut tree was planted on his grave. The tree grew for hundreds of years, until it was destroyed by a storm.

Chestnut trees spread massively throughout Kyiv in the 19th century. The city authorities even issued a special decree which stated what species of trees had to be planted and on which streets. Chestnut trees were the most important feature in this urban planning endeavor.

“The decree of the Kyiv City Duma dated November 3, 1895, states that chestnut trees had to be planted on most streets in the Starokyivska area. Chestnut trees were also to be planted in the streets heading from the Starokyivska area to the Lybidska area. The Boulevard district (where Symon Petliura Street is located now) was planted solely with chestnut trees.”

It turns out that mainly chestnuts were planted in the city’s center, and in other districts there were also maples, limes, willows, acacia, ash trees, and elms. Incidentally, the decree also included recommendations on what distance should separate the trees. So, chestnut trees, poplars, maples had to be planted 12 arshins from each other (one arshin is 70 centimeters), while limes, elms, and ash trees were to be separated by 9 arshins, etc.


Such recommendations would be in place in modern Kyiv as well, especially in what concerns the area of plantations. For as a result of the recent trends Kyiv may lose its status as one of Europe’s greenest cities.

Chestnuts are also going through bad times. In recent years the trees have been suffering from vermin, which has turned their leaves yellow and caused them to fall out in mid-summer. Besides, new climatic conditions also have an impact on the lives of the trees. Whereas previously chestnuts were 60 years old on average, in the current ecological conditions, with the car exhaust and salt on the roads they hardly reach 40.

When several years ago chestnut trees started to dry up en masse, ecologists suggested that soon there would be a need to replace them with other trees. There were even proposals to replace them with magnolias. However, the Hryshko National Botanic Garden specialists consider that the situation is not so bad, and the symbols of Kyiv can be saved.

In most cases chestnuts are affected by moths: the insects lay eggs into the leaf tissue, later larvae develop from the eggs and eat out the leaves’ core, where chlorophyll, a green pigment, is concentrated. This is doing the greatest damage to the chestnuts. But red horse chestnuts (a hybrid of the Balkan and North-American chestnuts) are not affected by such moths — its leaves remain green till autumn. The reason for this has never been studied. Volodymyr Kvasha, a research fellow from the Hryshko National Botanical Garden, is sure that this resistant variety can be planted on the streets of Kyiv.

Another species, the bottlebrush buckeye, could also be quite promising. Kvasha explained that it is unique because it is a decorative shrub, whereas the rest of chestnuts are trees (there are nearly 20 species). And it flowers in July, not in May. The flowers are white, whereas the stamens are pink and up to five centimeters long. Unfortunately, the Botanic Garden collection includes only one specimen of this miracle bush. But this is a matter of time, because breeders are working on multiplying the existing species and now breed hybrids of chestnuts, and later plant them on city streets. Moreover, there is nothing complicated in growing these plants. Kvasha assures that our climate is favorable for them, but when planting one should add some humus into the hole and water the plant intensively in the first two weeks.

No matter what, the capital’s chestnuts have been unique and will remain so. The city residents love this blossoming brand of the city so much that they almost consider it a national tree, disregarding the fact that Kyiv’s chestnuts come from the Balkans.

By Inna LYKHOVYD, photos by Mykola TYMCHENKO, The Day