Saturday, January 28, 2017

The Spanish Chestnut Tree on the Corner of West and Nelson Streets, Toowoomba – The John Ham TREE

The John Handley tree is the Spanish or sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa L.) tree which is growing on the wide verge on the south-eastern corner of West Street and Nelson Streets in Toowoomba. It is the oldest exotic tree known to have been planted in Toowoomba, and the best documented tree in the city.

The tree is now a vigorously sprouting stump - a relic of a once much larger and taller tree. It is leafy in the summer and leafless in the winter. The remaining tree is about seven metres tall with a canopy spread of about nine metres, whilst the stump is about 1.7 metres thick. The stump and main branches are all extensively rotted internally, greatly weakening its structure and preventing much further growth. All of the growth now is of short lateral shoots that do not persist to grow into branches.

In about 1870 John Handley obtained four blocks of uncleared land totalling over a hundred acres about a mile north of Drayton, the town at the top of the Great Dividing Range that preceded and gave rise to Toowoomba. He cleared much of the land and built a house and farm buildings (since removed), established five acres of productive gardens, vineyards and orchards, and developed the rest as grazing paddocks. He called his land 'Paradise Farm'. 
Jane & John Handley

The Handley tree in 1983 (Photo curtesy of the Handley family

Local historian Mr Bob Dansie quotes from a rural correspondent to the Darling Downs Gazette in 1878: 'The property [of Mr John Handley] is situated at the end of West Street about one mile from Drayton.  … The owner has given the name Paradise Farm to his place …  A gateway leads from the road up to the house [now Baker Street], on the left of which is planted a row of Spanish Chestnut trees’. This row would not have included the Handley tree. ‘He planted eleven Spanish Chestnut trees about five years ago, which have grown up well and look handsome trees. They were grown from suckers obtained from the nursery of Mr. Ferguson, Camden, near Sydney …  All of the lower branches have been lopped, leaving in most of them just the trunk growing up straight and surmounted by a crown of branches and foliage'. It is assumed that the Handley tree would have been planted from the same or similar stock at about this time, but this is not certain.
An extract from 'A Folk History of early Drayton and Toowoomba as told by Jacob Dorges' (edited by Rae Pennycuik and printed by the Toowoomba Education Centre) reads: 'This [Paradise Farm] was purchased by the late John Handley Snr. approximately 100 years ago. ...There was a row of tall English chestnut trees on one side of the drive … and [they] were also planted around the boundary of the horse paddock and hay-shed. A few of these old chestnut trees are still alive though showing the effects of age.'  It is assumed that the Handley tree is one of the latter.
In 1983 the Handley family erected a stone beneath the tree carrying the inscription:  'This Spanish chestnut tree commemorates an avenue of these trees planted by John Handley of Paradise Farm in the years 1865-1875. This plaque was unveiled by his descendants on 2-4-83'.  At about the same time a photograph was taken of the tree, which appears to have been about 8 metres tall with a dense canopy about 14 metres wide, much the same height that it is today but with a wider canopy.
In January 2007 a report on the health of the tree was to given to Toowoomba City Council by Mr Adam Tom, Consulting Arborist. He noted that the tree was 8 metres tall with a canopy width of 10 metres and a trunk diameter at breast height of 1.42 metres. The tree's vigour was 'Very good as is evidenced by good leaf colour, leaf size and prolific epicormic sprouting' whilst its vitality was 'Very good as is evidenced by good shoot extension and canopy density.'  No insect pests were noted but the tree exhibited extensive fungal decay and hollowing of the root crown, trunk and branches to 150 mm diameter. All of the original structure of the tree was affected by the decay but not the epicormic growth. Most of the original canopy structure had been lost as a result of poor pruning practices and structural failure due to the fungal decay. The fungal decay was estimated to affect about 70% of the cross-sectional area of the trunk and remedial action was required. Mr Tom's conclusion was that the tree was in good health but of poor structure and that it required 'some minor maintenance'.

During the summer of 2012/2013 a car crashed at the intersection of West and Nelson Streets, stopped below the tree and caught fire. The fire caused extensive damage to the southern side of the tree, including the loss of several major (but mostly hollow) branches and the death of the bark over much of the affected area. The damaged limbs were carefully pruned by Council staff. Photographs of the tree in August 2013 are below.
Spanish or sweet chestnut trees are native to southern Europe and Asia Minor where they are widely cultivated for food, and whilst they grow well in the warmer and moister parts of south-eastern Australia they do not grow well in Toowoomba. There is another young tree in the Toowoomba Botanic Gardens. In Europe they are substantial trees, growing to 25 metres tall with wide-spreading branches. The trees are deciduous, leafless in the winter and flowering among the leaves in summer. The male and female flowers are carried on erect catkins with the male flowers at the top. Spiny fruits appear in the autumn, each containing several fat brown chestnuts which fall with the leaves in early winter. These fruits also appear on the trees in Toowoomba, but contain no seeds.
Whilst the trees are highly ornamental in larger parks and open countryside, they are grown principally for their seeds which have formed an important part of the southern European diet for over two thousand years. The nuts are normally roasted to remove the thin tough astringent skins, leaving a rich oily seed which is tasty and nutritious. They may be eaten freshly roasted, as stuffing for poultry, in soups, in confectionary or in other ways. Creamed and flavoured with vanilla they become marron.

(Article by John Swarbrick, December, 2016)

Leafless Handley tree in 2013 (north view)
Fire-damaged (eastern side)

The young Spanish chestnut tree
in the Toowoomba Botanic Gardens, March 2013

Fruits and leaves of a Spanish chestnut tree,
 March 2013 

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