English Oak – Quercus robur
Other Names: Pedunculate Oak (for its long-stalked acorns), Truffle Oak, French Oak, Royal Oak, Common Oak.
Distinctive Characteristics: Ecologically, the oak lives up to its symbolic representation of sturdiness. It is said that an oak grows for 300 years, lives for 300 years, and dies for 300 years. As it ages, the English Oak tends to form a broad, spreading, irregular crown with twisted, gnarled main branches (although some of the most famous oaks in the world are mostly tall and straight). It can live for centuries in partial decay with fallen or coppiced limbs and hollowed trunk cavities, until it is left standing as a haunting shell of its former self. The most legendary heritage trees are bestowed names, revered, and protected, and vie as contenders for the world record–holders of biggest-girth, oldest, and most voluminous in Europe. The oak is also a symbol of fecundity. A single bountiful tree can produce up to 5 million acorns during its lifetime, though only a handful of them, if any, will reach maturity and produce another generation of oaks.
Distribution: Native to most of Britain and Europe, as well as western Turkey and parts of North Africa.
Ecosystem: The dominant tree of deciduous woodlands, mixed forest, and ancient wood pastureland; prefers fertile and heavy soils. Lives among Birch, Beech, Rowan, Hazel, Ash, Linden, Elm, and Poplar.
Maximum Age: Over 1,000 years.
Maximum Height and Girth: Up to 143 ft (43.6 m) in height; up to 48.5 ft (14.78 m) in circumference.
Animal Community: The English Oak is home to more invertebrates than any other tree in England; over 300 crawling and flying creatures spend their entire lives feasting on its bark and leaves. The acorns, like those of other oaks, are an important food source for a variety of mammals and birds. Domesticated animals such as pigs have traditionally eaten the acorn “mast” for fodder.
Traditional Uses: Robur is Latin for “strength” or “hard timber,” and certainly oak has been a prized hardwood timber for 9,000 years, as well as being a source of medicine, food, and folklore.
Medicine: Many parts of the tree—leaves, bark, galls, and acorns—have been used traditionally as medicinal remedies: as an astringent, to treat diarrhea, for inflammation, burns, dermatitis, bleeding wounds, gingivitis, sore throats, ulcers, infections, and kidney stones.
Food: For thousands of years, the people who lived among oaks relied heavily on acorns as a carbohydrate-rich food source. In fact, acorns and chestnuts were the primary sources of carbohydrates until the domestication of wheat in agriculture, starting 10,000 years ago. Even after the large-scale production of grains, acorns continued to be an important food source. Peoples who ate acorns as a mainstay are called baleocultures. Sadly, the processing of acorn food in our modern world is a mostly lost cultural skill. Luckily, however, there are some traditions globally that continue it, and there is a resurgence of interest in wild-crafted and post-industrial-age survival foods. Acorns are leached with water of their bitter tannins before eating. They can be cooked into porridge, a kind of bread, and/or added to recipes.
Tools and Objects: Tannin from oak bark has been used to tan leather. Galls formed by wasps were once an important source of ink.
Art and Ceremony: The iconic English Oak, sometimes called the king of trees, is Europe’s most beloved deciduous tree. It is an enduring, regal symbol of strength, protection, and survival, often used as a national emblem in English and Irish culture. Its wavy, lobed leaves and long acorns have become classic symbols, frequently used for heraldry and for signs above pubs and inns.
This majestic oak was sacred to and revered by the Greek, Roman, Irish, and Germanic peoples and was associated with various gods and goddesses. Most especially, the oak is associated with the Druids (druid may be a derivation of oak-knower). Oak is the seventh tree in the Ogham, a secret druidic Tree Alphabet. In Celtic folklore, the Oak King symbolizes winter; the deciduous Oak King holds a yearly battle with the evergreen Holly King, each one ruling for half of the year. The Holly King, staying green all winter, seems to have won, but by midsummer the once-defeated Oak King establishes supremacy in full foliage and power. The Oak King is also recognizable in the literary archetype of Sir Gawain (the Holly King being the Green Knight), as well as being one of many manifestations in sculpture and painting of the Green Man—a face made up of or surrounded by leaves. Images of the Green Man appear in traditional art, such as stone carvings in churches and civic buildings.
Shelter: Throughout Europe, oak was the most popular building material for architectural beams.
Transportation: Oak was the dominant wood for building naval warships during the Renaissance, heavily exploited by the British Army. Up to 2,000 trees were needed to build just one ship! Once the predominant forest tree in Europe, so many oaks had been cut down in Britain by the reign of Queen Elizabeth I that laws were passed to protect them, and planting was carried out to ensure future timber supply.
Modern Uses: Today, English Oak is still popular for making wine and whiskey barrels, furniture, cabinetry, flooring, and paneling. The dense, long-lasting wood makes excellent firewood. No longer dominating the wild woodlands of Europe, impressive ancient individuals saved from the axe remain isolated in parklands, churchyards, fields, and roadsides.
Threats and Conservation: Although English Oaks are relatively common and no longer in danger of being over-harvested, they are in danger from what in Europe is called Acute Oak Decline. This disease is similar to the Sudden Oak Death killing oaks in the U.S. Although scientists are still looking for cures to kill these pathogens, the first question to ask is this: What are the factors causing these trees to be weak and susceptible to disease in the first place, and what preventative measures should we be employing within their ecosystems to help them be disease-resistant?