Secrets of the Wise Old Oak Trees
Oak trees are a familiar part of the landscape for generations as they dominate the skyline. Their distinctive shape has the presence of a kindly grandfather in parks and historic gardens. But what do you really know about them? Here we go with 29 interesting facts about oak trees.
Oak trees are present throughout history and arrived millions of years before humans. The first recognizable trees appeared 65 million years ago. Today there are still 600 species of oaks throughout the world–China has over 100 different varieties.
Oak Trees in the UK
The United Kingdom is home to five oak species–two are natives (12,000 years since the last ice age). Three travelled here with human help.
English Oak (Quercus Robur)
The English Oak built the navy and is celebrated by the Royal Navy in the marching song–‘Hearts of Oak.’ HMS victory consumed 6,000 oak trees in constructing her hull, masts, and other parts. This oak species is the most common throughout Britain and is a native tree that grows to 131 feet (ca. 40 m) in height.
Sessile Oak (Quercus Petraea)
The sessile oak tree grow in hilly areas throughout the European Union and is Ireland and Wales national tree. It is an indigenous tree, and like the English oak grows to around 131 feet (ca. 40 meters) in height.
Holm Oak (Quercus ilex)
The holm oak tree arrived from the Mediterranean in the 1500s and is unique among the oaks because it is evergreen. The young leaves have spines and resemble holly leaves. Unless you are familiar with the species, you wouldn’t recognize it as an oak tree until the appearance of the familiar acorns.
The Romans used it for wheels–carts and chariots. It doesn’t grow as tall as the native species–half the size at 65 feet (ca. 20 meters).
Red Oak (Quercus Rubra)
Unknown when this American import arrived in the UK. Perhaps it came with the grey squirrel into the parklands and gardens of the wealthy. The leaves turn vibrant red in autumn. The oak leaf is pointy, unlike the rounded shape of the English Oak, grow to 65 feet (ca. 20 meters). The English and Sessile oaks start to produce acorns at 20 years, but the red oak tree waits until it is 40.
Turkey Oak (Quercus cerris)
These deciduous trees arrived for ornamental plantings in the 18th Century from South-Eastern Europe and Asia Minor. This oak tree is sacred to gods Zeus (Jupiter) and Dagda. The leaves are the familiar curvy shape, but the acorn cups are slightly hairy compared to others. It is host to the gall wasp, which is a pest that preys on domestic oak trees. The maximum height is 98 feet (ca. 30 meters) midway between the local and other imported species.
Oak Symbolism, Myth, and Lore
Worshiped by the druids, oak trees and wood appear in many ways throughout history. In the present day as a representation of the qualities of strength, wisdom, and royalty.
Along with flags and heraldic devices, almost every country has a national tree. The tree that has the qualities that reflect how the nation sees itself. Both England and Wales take the Oak as their kingdoms tree.
Plenty of other countries also claim the oak as an emblem of their nationalities pride, but not the same species:
Pedunculate or English Oak (Quercus robur): Croatia, Denmark, England, Estonia, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Poland, Romania, Serbia, United Kingdom, Northern America
Golden Oak (Quercus alnifolia): Cyprus
Sessile Oak (Quercus Petraea): Emerald Isle, Wales
Cork Oak (Quercus Suber): Portugal.
Lunar Oak Month: 10 June to 7 July
As well as a zodiac sign from the solar calendar, you have a tree sign from the lunar calendar. A child born in the oak month receives the blessings of generosity, nobility, honesty, and courage–along with the strength of the mighty oak.
Coins featuring Oaks
The oak features on old UK coinage–the sixpence, a coin referred to in many rhymes. More recently as the ‘O’ in the alphabet series of the pound and 10p pieces (issued in 2018). Many other countries have put oak trees on their coins–America and Germany.
The slang name for the sixpence is ‘the tanner,’ a reference to the oak as a tanning agent in the leather industry.
New for 2020 is the €20 coin featuring oak leaves as the French symbol for happiness and liberty.
In the British Museum, you can see a gold coin featuring Emperor Augustus wearing an oak wreath. This shows how long it has played a symbolic role in human lives. If a soldier from Rome saved a civilian in battle, he received a crown of oak–the civic oak in recognition of his actions.
Oaks on Postage Stamps
In 1973, the Royal Mail issued a 9p stamp featuring an oak tree as part of the British trees collection. Other countries using it on postage include America–the white oak, the Soviet Union, Cyprus, Spain, and Canada (red oak).
The Tree of Life
The tree of life is rooted in many cultures and a biblical reference. They often use an oak tree as a symbol in jewelry and paintings. It’s spreading canopy and mirroring root system gives a sense of majesty represented by an immense tree.
An oak tree is an excellent choice for the concept because it supports so many other living creatures:
- Animals and other wildlife eat the acorns: jays, pigeons, ducks, boars, deer, bears, rats, squirrels, and mice.
- 30 Species of birds use oak trees for foraging and nesting.
- 45 species of bugs make oak trees their home and diet.
- 200 different moths associate with oak trees.
As well as the creatures that use the trees, there are the associated benefits from providing leaves for the forest floor, shade, and shelter. Other animals eat the insects and bugs that inhabit the oak.
The oldest oak tree in the world is the Pechanga Great oak tree in the USA that is over 2,000 years old. In Britain, there are around 3,400 oaks that class as ancient (over 400 years) with 117 aged over 800 years. The oldest oaks in the UK are in Cheshire, Shropshire, and Lincolnshire. Oak trees live centuries.
Oak Trees in the Bible
The bible mentions oak trees 28 times. Examples include the ‘oaks of righteousness’ and the Oaks of Bashan and Mamre. The Bashan oaks provided wood for oars. The Mamre oaks are the site of Abram’s altar to the Lord.
Oak Trees in Plays and Stories
Oak trees make guest appearances in many books, plays, and stories, sometimes as scenery and sometimes as symbols of human strengths and weaknesses.
William Shakespeare refers to the felling of a mighty oak in Henry VI (Part Iii):
“Many strokes, though with a little axe, Hew down and fell the hardest-timber’d oak.”
Aesop’s fables compare the mighty oak to the weakness of the reed (or willow in later versions) as a moral lesson that sometimes you need to bend to survive.
Harper Lee’s book (To Kill a Mockingbird), features an oak tree as a character symbolizing the opposite traits of kindness and then intolerance.
Virginia Woolf (Orlando) uses a poem about an oak tree as a central focus for her long-lived poet.
In AA Milne’s stories about Winnie the Pooh, the loveable bear finds bees (and honey) at the top of a large oak tree.
Finally, where would Robin Hood be without the oaks of Sherwood Forest?
Military and Heraldic
In heraldic terms, the oak leaf shows faith and endurance and on a coat of arms’ strength and great age. The Mansfield coat of arms granted to the city on 10 June 1987 includes an oak tree as a reference to Sherwood Forest. The city motto is “Industry flourishes as the oak.”
The US uses gold and silver oak leaves to show rank, and oak clusters appear on many medals.
The green man or foliate heads appears among the stone and wood carvings in many old churches and cathedrals. Look closely, and you see that the forest spirit includes oak leaves and acorns in most cases.
Oak and Its Many Uses
Before the industrial revolution, the forest was an essential resource, and oak wood continues to supply materials for many applications today. Still, lots of use in construction for timber framing, doors and to manufacture furniture.
Herbal medicine accesses the medically useful components of plants. Modern medical practices use purer forms of these active ingredients. Before, the rise of the pharmaceutical industry trial and error identified valuable drugs from the forest.
Bruised leaves applied to wounds was a remedy utilised by Galen of Pergamon, a doctor in the Roman Empire.
Bark substitutes for quinine, and in herbal medicine, it has the properties of a tonic, astringent and antiseptic. Waters or alcohol extracts useful chemical compounds. The uses relate to dysentery and bleeding.
Acorns and bark steeped in milk provide an antidote to ingesting poisonous herbs and medicines.
The high level of tannic acid means large quantities of acorns are toxic to dogs, horses, cattle, goats, and sheep. But the acorns are excellent food for pigs and were harvested for that purpose for many years. Free-range boars and swine rooting about in the forest fatten on fallen acorns.
Acorns provide protein, carbohydrate, and healthy unsaturated fats. They are also rich in potassium, manganese, calcium, phosphorus, and niacin. They contain plenty of useful nutrients but seldom appear on the human menu. There is no profit in selling acorns, and the taste is bitter. Bitter foods are better for health, but most people avoid bitter tastes in favour of sweet.
You can grind acorns to flour or roast and grind as a coffee substitute. They tasted bitter, but in hungry periods the acorn provides nourishment if properly processed to leach out some tannic acid by soaking in water.
You can use acorn flour the same way as wheat flour, but not for bread making as it is gluten-free. Roasted acorns can add to stews, or you can eat as a nut snack.
The roots have a symbiotic relationship with truffles, one of the most expensive foodstuffs. You can’t plant truffles, you need to plant oak trees and hope for the best.
Colours from the Oak
Various techniques extract dye from plants. Different plants, leaves, fruits, and stems yield unique colours.
Leaves, acorns, and husk give a range of brown colours. The tannin means that oak dyes don’t need a mordant to fix the dye to the fibre.
Oak galls yield greys and blacks for dyed stuff.
The Aleppo oak gall started the ink industry as it has a high concentration of wasp larvae. The ground oak galls provide a deep black ink.
Oak bark is abundant in tannins, and this property allows it to tan hides into leather. The process takes twelve months or more. Traditional tanning produces excellent high-quality leather and still used today for premium leather products.
The national tree of Portugal is the cork oak, and Portugal is the source of 55% of natural cork. The cork oak contributes massively to the economies of seven countries in the EU involved with cork harvesting.
Oak Swill baskets are a traditional craft still practised in the Lake District. Coppiced oak and hazel combine to make a hard-wearing basket used in industry, agriculture, and domestic purposes.
The oak trunks 4-6 inches (15.24 cm) turn into thin pliable ribbons of oak that weave around flexible hazel sticks. The process involves cleaving and soaking.
Houses and Ships
Oak wood is famed for its capacity in constructing buildings (Houses of Westminster and Tudor homes) and ships (Vikings longboats and Tudor warships). The high tannin content of oak makes it resistant to insect attack and mould.
Oak is a hardwood and produces long-lived items of furniture that are beautiful and highly prized. Although expensive, they are an investment because they resist damage. Today oak wood flooring is gorgeous, durable, and warm underfoot.
Treen–of the tree, is an all-purpose term for any item made from wood that is not a ship, piece of furniture or a house. Treen covers knickknacks, jewelry, and other small useful or decorative items.
Wooden oak items can be created by carving and turning. Oak wood has a reputation for being difficult to work due to the fibrous grain. In the hands of a skilled craftsman, the bowls, pens, and carvings are exquisite and tactile objects.
Oak is a useful and practical material for making wine barrels, but it adds a richness of flavour including smokey, vanilla, and oaky.
The three principle benefits of using oak wine barrels are:
- Additional flavour notes.
- Slow addition of oxygen–decreases astringency and improves smoothness.
- Provides condition for malolactic fermentation–a process that produces a creamier tasting.
Oak barrels provide the following flavour compounds:
- Syringaldehyde–like vanilla.Oak lactone–herb flavours like dill, woody notes, and a hint of coconut.
- Eugenol–think smokey spices and cloves.
- Guaiacol–a hint of burnt toffee.
- Furfural–burnt caramel, bitter almond and dried fruit.
Oak barrels not only improve whisky (whiskey, bourbon, brandy), but they are essential to produce colour and a distinctive flavour. Whisky is an alchemist’s brew of water, alcohol, and oak. For whisky casks, oak is seasoned (dried), toasted and charred–the exact degree of each is part of the whiskey makers art.
Whisky barrels may pass on to the wine industry or on for other uses. At this stage, the barrel maybe 50-60 years old. Wood is still useful for–barbecue smoking chips, barrel planters, and woodcraft using the staves. The timber is still fit for purpose and can turn into practical oak gifts like bottle openers or pens.
Farewell to the Oak
The UK contains around 121 million oak trees. These are both iconic and treasured because of the role they play in promoting biodiversity and their many uses. From, leather to whisky production to providing shade and clean air in the park.
Oak trees produce 2,000 to 9,000 acorns a year. But only one in 10,000 has the possibility of growing into a new oak tree. An oak tree takes decades, if not hundreds of years to mature. When you plant an oak tree, you are planting for the next generation, not for yourself. If you have any wonderful facts about oak trees, message me below.
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