The sacred, but sick, chestnut tree

Many branches have fallen and the roots stick out above the ground.
Many branches have fallen and the roots stick out above the ground. / Charo Márquez
  • More than 11,000 people have signed a petition to protect the ailing and abandoned holy chestnut tree of Istán

When you are more than a thousand years old, you would expect to suffer some wear and tear. However, if you have survived fires, wars, droughts and logging, after all this time it is a shame that your downfall should be caused by laziness and disinterest.

This is what has happened to the sacred chestnut tree of Istán, a thousand-year-old tree, a natural settlement and attraction in the Sierra de las Nievas wilderness, which is now abandoned and suffering an incurable illness.

Many branches are detached from the tree, and its roots have became exposed not just with the passing of time but also due to the visitors removing the earth around it which is considered to be sacred. On top of all of that, the tree suffers from chestnut gall wasp, which can kill its victims.

As a result of this situation, Torre Vigia, a citizens’ platform, has started a petition on, asking for the authorities to take action to protect this tree so that it can continue living for many years.

The crown of the sacred tree measures over 27 metres in diameter, the trunk is over 21 metres in perimeter, and it casts a shadow of 500 square metres. The tree is also surrounded by large cork oaks, making for a pretty scene. It does not produce high-quality chestnuts, but its mere presence is the best fruit. Some visitors scatter the ashes of family members around the tree, thus increasing its famed holiness. Nevertheless, even holiness does not make it immune.

In Malaga, generally, they employ two measures in order to beat the chestnut gall wasp plague. The first is to remove the affected branches and burn them. The other is to introduce a predator of the insect. Neither of these measures has been used for the sacred chestnut tree.

In spite of its value and age, the sacred chestnut tree is not considered a Natural Monument of Andalucía. It is only included on the register of ‘special trees’ which means that it does not receive preservation, nor does it have a budget for its conservation.

In 2011, Istán town hall tried to come to an agreement with the landowners to take over the management of the tree and guarantee its durability, however disagreements between the family who own the land prohibited this from coming to fruition.

There are other initiatives which are fighting for the ‘grandfather of the forest’ to continue providing shade. The Izquierda Unida party is going to propose a motion to the Andalusian parliament asking for, primarily, the environmental department to clean up the tree. This would mean clearing fallen branches, combating the gall wasp plague, and putting up a fence around the tree. Secondly, they will ask for the tree to be declared public property, which would require the expropriation of 2.8 hectares of land. Only after this can the tree become a Natural Monument.

Another initiative: on Sunday, the company Eco Tours organised a tour to “reclaim” the chestnut tree. Their aim was to demand that the various administrations and the owner of the land give special care and attention to the thousand-year-old chestnut and to ask for its declaration as a Natural Monument of Andalucía. It was a walking tour of around 25 kilometres, starting at the Herrojo area in Benahavís. According to the organisers, “given that you can’t do anything without the explicit permission from the owner”, they were limited to picking up dried branches and cleaning the surroundings.

It is hoped that these initiatives raise awareness and that it won’t be left to divine intervention for the sacred tree to be saved.