A few kilometers
from the town of Sant'Alfio, on the lower slopes of
Mount Etna, is the Hundred Horse Chestnut Tree ("Castagno dei
Cento Cavalli"), believed to be the oldest tree in Sicily and perhaps
the oldest of Europe.
Not every part of it is that old. Parts of the trunk have been burned
and at one point a house was built into the giant tree. Yet it survives.
Until recently, few local residents appreciated the tree's legacy, but it
has been dated scientifically.
One would not think that the question of a tree's antiquity could engender
adamant rivalry but, as in the cases of many "world records,"
eclectic opinions abound, colored by the motivation of "locals"
to promote "their" tree as a source of local pride while perhaps
generating tourism profits.
In the manner of an international athletic competition with participants
fiercely vying for first place, the claim to Europe's oldest surviving tree
is made by several towns, with olive trees leading the list. The age of
these trees cannot be dated very reliably beyond two thousand years, but
among those usually mentioned are the Fortingall Yew in Perthshire (Scotland),
the Pedras del Rei olive in Portugal and the Pano Vouves olive in Greece.
All are thought to be slightly over two thousand years old.
While it is not likely that any of these trees are much over two thousand
years old, their histories are fascinating, with the chestnut's being the
longest and perhaps most accurate. Conifers lead the list of the world's
oldest trees, with a conifer root system in Sweden dated to the end of the
last ice age and several American trees estimated to be almost five millennia
In this land of legend combined with the occasional fact, the name "Hundred
Horses" owes its name to the traditional story that during a sudden
rainstorm the young Joan (Giovanna) of Aragon, Queen of Naples, travelling
with a mounted suite of around a hundred retainers and knights, sought shelter
under the huge tree.
Joan of Aragon (1454 Barcelona - 1517 Naples), daughter of King John
II of Aragon (1397-1479), was the second wife of King Ferdinand I ("Ferrante")
of Naples and Sicily (1423-1494), who she wed in 1476. The royal dynasty
of Aragon had ruled Sicily since the War
of the Vespers in 1282, and by now the "Italian" branch also
ruled (from Naples) the southern third of the Italian peninsula. King Ferrante's
reign was characterised by, among other things, high taxes. In addition
to descendants by his two wives, Ferrante had a number of surviving children
by two mistresses.
As chestnut trees, conifers and olive trees normally grow to be several
centuries old, their occasionally exceptional longevity shouldn't surprise
us. They are nature's testaments to history.
About the Author: Maria Mazzaro writes about nature and environmental topics.