‘Of all the trees that grow so fair, Old England to adorn, Greater are none beneath the Sun, Than Oak, and Ash, and Thorn’
Tree Song, Rudyard Kipling
Rudyard Kipling’s first lines of his poem Tree Song mention one of the most iconic of British trees, the Oak. Shrouded in myth and legend – everything from Druidic rituals to Robin Hood to King Charles II – the oak has armed nations (see Nelson’s battle fleets) and supported the early iron industry (via oak charcoal). It is an ever-present shape in large areas of the British countryside, and, thanks to its lobed leaves and acorns, one of the most easy to identify, even for urban youngsters.
Worldwide, there are hundreds of different Oaks, members of the Fagaceae, or Beech family, spread all across the temperate zones and part of the tropics. Speciation is complicated by the ease with which some species produce viable, natural crosses. In Britain, there are three members of the Quercus family, which include the Pendulate Oak (Quercus robur), the Sessile Oak (Quercus petraea), and the Turkey Oak (Quercus cerris). Above you can see an example of the Pendulate Oak, close by the River Nidd in Yorkshire. Note how the leaves are held close to the branch or twig, with a very short stalk. Unlike the leaves, the acorns are held on stalks, well away from the twig. In the Sessile Oak sometimes called the Welsh Oak because of its prevalence in that country, the situation is exactly the reverse, with leaves on longer stalks and acorns held close to the twig. The Turkey Oak – which, as the name suggests is native to that country – has been spread all over Europe. Unfortunately, it is host to a very destructive pest, the Gall Wasp (Andricus quercuscalicis), which attacks the acorns of native British oaks, so much so that the U.K. Ministry of Defence ordered that all Turkey Oaks be felled, wherever they are found on MoD lands in the U.K.
Oaks provide the most amazingly durable and attractive timber, and since large areas of Southern England were once covered in oak forests, there was ample supply of large timbers to form the keels, decks and planking of everything from Mediaeval trading ‘cogs’ to the ‘ships of the line’ of Admiral Lord Nelson’s day. However, the forests were rapidly reduced, by the need for oak charcoal, which was the main means of smelting iron (before coal, and therefore coke, was available in sufficient quantity). The remaining stands of oak were saved when iron was smelted in quantity by Abraham Darby (1678 – 1717) using coke, thereby triggering the Industrial Revolution.
Oak trees have figured in several escape/evasion stories. King Charles II of England is said to have taken shelter in one (Boscobel House, Shropshire) when fleeing from Parliamentary forces, after defeat in the Battle of Worcester (3rd September, 1651), during the English Civil War (1642-1651). This incident is still commemorated as ‘Oak Apple Day’, 29th May (King Charles II’s birthday) in various parts of England, including a spectacular celebration in the Derbyshire village of Castleton. The legend of Robin Hood is associated with an oak tree near Edwinstowe, Nottinghamshire, deep in Sherwood Forest, known as ‘The Major Oak’. As with many oaks of great age (it is estimated to be close to 1,000 years old), it is split and hollow, and its spreading lower branches are held up with supports. Robin Hood and his Merry Men are supposed to have hidden inside.
The acorns you can see are green. When fully grown and ripe, they will be a mid-brown, and fall from the tree; they provided excellent food for pigs in the Middle Ages, which were driven into the forest to forage, where they had to compete with the local deer - the right to do this was known as ‘pannage’. Squirrels, and other rodents who can tolerate the tannins in the acorn’s shell, and certain species of birds such as the Eurasian Jay (Garrulus glandarius), help disperse acorns by hiding them in ‘larders’, or burying them. During World War Two, roasted acorn meal was used to make a substitute coffee, particularly in Germany, where it was known as Ersatzkaffee (substitute coffee).
Oaks are truly central to British life. Featured strongly in art, architecture and heraldry, it is no wonder that a sprig of oak leaves and an acorn is the symbol of the National Trust for England, Wales and Northern Ireland!