Disclaimer: The information provided in this article is for entertainment purposes only. All other uses are not recommended. References have been linked in the text where relevant, all references are provided at the end of the post.
An Oak By Many Other Names
As long as we’ve had folklore, oral histories, and written records, oak trees have been apart of the narrative.
There are approximately 500 types of Quercus, (latin for “oak tree”) trees and shrubs across the northern hemisphere.(1)
They include deciduous species (the leaves drop in the fall) and evergreen species such as the live oaks.
The Quercus genus does not include poison oaks, as that is actually a shrub or leafy vine in the sumac family. (2)
Oaks also belong to the Fagaceae family along with beech trees. This connotes they are flowering plants with unisexual flowers, among other similarities. (3)
An interesting factoid about oaks, especially white oaks, is that due to having unisex flowers and being polinated by the wind hybridization is quite common. (4)
I’ll admit that not being a botanist or arborist of any sort, I didn’t fully understand the science behind the phenomenon but found it fascinating all the same.
Oak Trees Used and Consumed.
The Oak tree historically has many uses: in architecture , manufacturing naval ships, in fine furniture, wood floors, and wood paneling etc.
A good example of this is the debating chamber in the House of Commons in London is paneled with oak timber. (4)
Part of the reason it’s so useful is due to the fact that it’s high tannin content makes oaks highly resistant to insect and fungal attack. Which helps most varieties to be resistant to decay.
The high tannin content can be poisonous to leaf eating animals such as goats, horses, cows etc.(4) So best to keep the farm life clear of it.
Raise A Glass
A very popular use of oak is in the making of barrels for aging spirits such as wines, sherry, brandy, and a variety of whiskeys. These oak barrels, which can be charred before use, will add to the color and flavor of the drinkable contents adding a much desired oak vanillin flavor. (4)
So the next time you have a little splash of Irish Whiskey, raise your glass a little to the oak tree which makes that unique color and flavor possible.
A Symbol of Strength and Wisdom
There’s more to the usefulness of oak trees than their textile and whisky production.
They are a symbol of strength, valor, and wisdom. Because of this symbolism there are several countries that have the Oak tree as a national symbol or have designated the oak as their national tree: England, Germany, Serbia, Poland, and France are just a few.
In 2004 the United States of America joined the fan club.
The Arbor Day Foundation asked Americans to vote on more than 21 candidate trees, and encouraged write-ins. The oak won by a landslide, out voting the runner up, the redwood, by more than 20,000 votes.
In November of 2004 legislation was made to uphold the results of that vote.
“Having oak as our National Tree is in keeping with the wishes of the hundreds of thousands of people who helped choose this striking symbol of our nation’s great strength,” said John Rosenow, president of The National Arbor Day Foundation. “The United States is blessed with a wealth of tree species–more than twice as many as all of Europe–and trees have played a key role in our nation’s history. Naming a national tree is a cause for celebration for us all…”(5)
Seeing how “hundreds of thousands of people” voted for the oak tree it’s no small wonder that it is also the state tree of several states, as well as the emblem on many city flags including Oakland, California.
Knowing how popular oaks are it’s no surprise that oak trees have their celebrities too. Here’s a brief list of some famous oaks. (6)
- The Major Oak in Sherwood Forest England. This mighty tree is over 800 years old and is rumored to have sheltered Robin Hood and his merry men.(6)
- The Boyington Oak, in Mobile Alabama approximately 190 years old. Was so named for R.S. Boyington who was convicted of murder. Claiming his innocence he predicted an oak tree would grow from his grave proving his case. (6)
- The Bartek Oak in Poland is believed to be 1200 years old, though some researchers estimate it’s closer to 700. It is the most celebrated oak in that country. (6)
- The Emancipation Oak in Hampton Virginia– This amazing tree has an important place in U.S. history. It was used by Mary Smith Peake to teach freedmen and children to read. Later it got its name when the black community gathered their to read the Emancipation Proclamation.(7)
- The Chapel Oak Tree in Allouville-Bellefosse, France, is around 800 years old. When it was around 500 years old it was struck by lightning and burned hollow. Oaks can survive such disasters. Taking it as a sign from God, the chatholic church leaders at the time turned it into a sanctuary dedicated to the virgin mary. Later another chapel with twisting stairs was added. Mass is still held there twice a year and it is the designated pilgrimage on August 15 for the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin. (8)
- The Jurupa Hill Oaks in Jurupa Valley California, are actually clones from a parent oak that is believed to have started growing around 13,000 years ago. Because it is the last of it’s kind it is sterile so must put out clone shoots in order to continue to live and grow. However, due to fires in the area, it must start over every five years or so. Rachel Sussmen said it best –
“It found a purchase on this steep hillside at a time when mastodon and camels still roamed the area, and has quietly persisted ever since, even as housing developments, a cement factory, containers filled with modular home components, and the traffic of off-road vehicles became its new neighbors” (9)
The Story Continues
Oak trees have so much fascinating history, lore, and uses. I must write more.
Come back next week when we discuss the mighty strength and valor of the oak trees and their uses as military symbols, both historical and modern.