After people voted between six beautiful old trees in Belgium, the Tree of the Year 2020 is the Four-Trunked Chestnut in Ypres
First, a bit of context. Fans of the Eurovision Song Contest will know that the entry from Belgium alternates between Flanders and Wallonia. The Flemish broadcaster VRT selects the entry in even-numbered years; the French-speaking broadcaster RTBF in odd-numbered years. The same procedure extends to the Belgian “Tree of the Year” competition. In 2020 it’s the turn of Flanders’ environmental organizations to coordinate the competition: “Boom van het Jaar”. The winning tree will represent Belgium at the prestigious European Tree of the Year 2021 competition. (See the winning European trees in 2020).
The aim of the initiative is to promote knowledge and interest in special trees. But it’s time to give all trees some love. Not that there’s anything new in this concept. European druids revered oaks (and still do); redwoods were integral to Native American cultures; baobabs were a part of African tribal life; tree spirits were important characters in ancient Greek myths. We continue to value trees for their calming influence via practices such as forest bathing.
And there’s a multitude of very practical reasons to admire, revere and preserve trees. Trees produce oxygen, reduce carbon dioxide and absorb atmospheric pollution. Trees clean the soil by absorbing dangerous chemicals and other pollutants that have entered the soil. They muffle urban noise and reduce noise pollution. Trees reduce flash flooding, provide shade and cooling, act as windbreaks, and fight soil erosion. And I haven’t even started on the huge benefits for wildlife in terms of food and habitat.
But back to the competition. Candidate trees were submitted by the general public, and on 1 September the jury announced the six provincial winners. Voting then took place to vote for the Belgian Tree of the Year. On 15 October the winner was announced. And it is (DRUM ROLL):
DE VIERSTAMMIGE KASTANJE: THE CHESTNUT WITH FOUR TRUNKS
The winner represents West Flanders and is the survivor of two world wars. This imposing chestnut tree was planted in Ypres around 1860, when the military fortress in Ypres was transformed into a public park. Along with the rest of Ypres, the chestnut suffered heavily during the First World War. Yet amazingly the stump remained alive. From the stump, four new trunks spontaneously arose. The tree was allowed to remain in its place, where it now flanks the Menin Gate, which was inaugurated in 1927. The four side trunks were also spared during the Second World War, when Ypres residents were forced to cut down many trees for firewood. With a trunk of 9.1 metres in circumference, this chestnut tree perfectly symbolizes the survival of Ypres.
Ypres’ inhabitants are very proud
“The people of Ypres are particularly proud with the selection of our four-trunk chestnut as Tree of the Year,” says the alderman for Environment and Nature, Valentijn Despeghel (SP.A). “To be honest: I believed from the start that we had a chance. Not only because of the impressiveness of the chestnut, but also because of the symbolic power that the tree radiates. The four-trunk chestnut at the Menin Gate perfectly illustrates the steadfastness and endurance of Ypres. A living and particularly vital monument, which can live on for more than 100 years without any setbacks.”
Here are the other five candidates:
DE YMERIAPLATAAN: THE YMERIA PLANE
Located in Wijgmaal, Flemish Brabant, this plane tree is actually a combination of six different trees, all more than 200 years old, that have grown together. The original tree was planted next to a watermill. It provided much-needed shade to prevent the wheel of the mill from drying out. The mill has long since disappeared. But the Ymeria Plane remains. It nearly disappeared to make way for the Ymeria sports complex. But thankfully the tree was saved and the car park was built around it. Indeed, it received special treatment. The surrounding top soil was removed with a special technique, without damaging the roots. The new soil layer ensures an optimal air and water supply to the tree. And its crown was carefully pruned to prevent long branches from breaking off and damaging the trunk. Its circumference measures over 9 metres and before pruning, it rose at least 30 metres above ground.
DE ADVOCAAT VAN DEURLE: “THE LAWYER” LIME TREE OF DEURLE
For years, lime trees have been placed at the entrances to villages. Here, they deter visitors with bad intentions and purify evil spirits. Since 1767, the village of Deurle, in East Flanders, was guarded by two imposing lime trees, nicknamed The Lawyer and The Notary. Since then they have been immortalized in poems and paintings. Both survived a felling order in the 1950s; the route of a new road was changed at the last minute to accommodate them. The trees seemed ready to last for another 200 years. Alas, it was not to be. In the cruel winds of 1983 The Notary crashed to the ground; The Lawyer had lost its faithful companion. Now alone, The Lawyer continues to do its duty.
DE VELDMAARSCHALK: THE FIELD MARSHAL’S SWEET CHESTNUT
Over to Limburg now, where to the right of the entrance to Pietersheim Castle, a solitary sweet chestnut marks the memorial mound for fallen Spaniards in the 17th century. This is when the Spanish army was encamped in the castle grounds. Although no human remains have been found during archaeological excavations, bones of horses date back to the battles that took place in this region at that time. It seems that this beautiful tree was planted in the 18th century in memory of the second marriage of Field Marshal Jan Filip Eugène de Merode to Princess Charlotte of Nassau-Hadamar. With its beautiful trunk and impressive circumference of 4.8 metres, it’s one of the park’s veteran trees.
DE REUS VAN HET DIELEGEMBOS: THE GIANT BEECH OF THE DIELEGEM FOREST
In the Brussels-Capital Region, the forest of Dielegem used to belong to the Premonstratensian monks who inhabited the oldest monastery in Brussels. The subsoil of the Dielegem hill consists of layers of easily exploitable limestone, which provided the main source of income for the abbey. After the stone layers had been fully mined in the 18th century, the monks decided to make a profit from their land by planting trees. According to the assumed age of this giant beech tree, it was probably planted by the monks over 200 years ago. The monastery did not survive the French Revolution. The tree did. And still survives today.
KAPPELLEKENSBOOM: THE CHAPEL ACACIA
Dominating the centre of Heidehuizen in the province of Antwerp is this magnificent acacia. Its origin is a mystery. But what is well known is that it has always sheltered a little chapel. Both the tree and the chapel are revered by local residents. So much so that great efforts have gone to looking after both. Literally cutting-edge tree surgery has undoubtedly extended the acacia’s life. It’s now strutted and supported to ensure it continues to tower over the little chapel.
If this has inspired you to get out and enjoy a walk in a forest in Belgium, here are some suggestions:
- 10 Woodland Walks in Flanders
- The Forêt de Soignes near Brussels
- The Forêt du Pays de Chimay
- Three walks in the Molendaal Forest
- The golden forests of Outrelouxhe
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And if you’re into trees, why not visit Parul’s blog where she has a fortnightly #ThursdayTreeLove post that you can join in. She lists some marvellous trees over there!