You’d hardly expect a tree growing on one of the world’s most active volcanoes to reach a great age, but growing happily on Sicily’s Mount Etna is the largest and oldest known chestnut tree in the world.
When you consider that Etna has experienced over 65 significant eruptions since 1600 AD, with the last serious eruption being on 28th January 2014, you’d be forgiven for thinking it too hostile an environment for the longevity of fauna.
Scientists believe the tree to be between 2,000 and 4,000* years old and, equally as remarkable as its age, is its position, as it grows just a mere 7.2 km from the volcano’s crater.
Recorded by Guinness World Records as having the ‘greatest tree girth ever’ at 57.91m (190 feet), the Chestnut Tree of One Hundred Horses (Il Castagno dei Cento Cavalli) is undoubtedly the most famous tree in Sicily.
Although the tree’s trunk has since split into multiple large trunks, these trunks still share one root mass, defining it as a single specimen.
Legend dictates that during a violent rainstorm, Princess Giovanna of Aragon, who was travelling with a mounted suite of around a hundred retainers and knights, sought shelter under the huge tree and, due to its great size, everyone remained dry - hence the names given to the tree.
The royal dynasty of Aragon had ruled Sicily since the War of the Vespers in 1282, and when, in 1476, Giovanna became the second wife of King Ferdinand I (Don Ferrante) of Naples, they became one of the most powerful families in the southern third of the Italian peninsula.
Located in the small town of Sant’Alfio at Piazzale Castagno dei Cento Cavalli, finding the tree is relatively easy as it is well signposted, however it is now secured behind gated fencing to protect it from damage caused by tourists. The gates are opened daily to allow people to look at the magnificent tree unhindered (for up to date opening hours, phone +39 340 525 1844).
Another point of interest further along the road is The Chestnut of the Boat (il Castagno della Nave), a younger tree at just 1,000 years old with branches shaped like a boat.
*The Turin-based botanist Bruno Peyronel estimated the age to be nearer the 4,000 year mark.