Each spring the horse chestnut tree in our lower front yard transforms for a week into a Renoir painting. It explodes into hundreds of bright clusters of delicate orchid-like blossoms, forming cone shaped floral candles illuminating the spreading branches. However, its setting is more peasant than romantic, as the tree stands in common company between a pine tree and a poplar lining the rural driveway into our barnyard. This is an exceedingly humble spot for a tree bedecked with such majestic lighting, its tender broad leafed branches brushed and broken by passing hay wagons and shavings trucks.
Although its graceful beauty seems more appropriate along the Seine River, during the summer it fits perfectly in its spot near our haybarn. Its verdant foliage provides deep cooling shade during hot sweaty days. The branches that were once lit up with scores of pink and white blossoms become leafy respite for a dusty hay crew gulping lemonade in between loads. Horses snooze in the paddocks under its shadow. Birds nest well hidden. The tree becomes sanctuary within and below.
By fall, the tree forms its fruit within unpretentious capsules covered with spines and prickles, visually spiked yet actually soft and pliable. There are few natural things so plain and homely as the buckeye horse chestnut husk. These are shed by the hundreds in autumn wind and rainstorms, and they shower down, cobbling the driveway, eventually to break apart underfoot.
Only by leaving the tree can the deep brown nut be revealed from its hiding place, its richness exposed. From exquisite bloom to shady haven to prickly husk to mahogany harvest, this chestnut tree’s changing palette needs no canvas, no frame, no museum gallery showcase. Instead its year round exhibition is for free, right in our front yard.