There are relatively few oaks in our woodlands, and to get photos of good growing trees it was necessary to go a bit further along the coastal woodland corridor to Braefoot.
Oaks, wherever they grow, are an important wildlife resource as well as having a long and interesting history some of which is detailed below.
The Oak Trees- Quercus robur & Quercus petraea
Surely the Oak is the most familiar tree in our woodlands today. As children we played amongst the tree roots, hid in the massive branches, collected the leaves, hunted for acorns to make necklaces and bracelets and were bemused by Oak Apples. We were not the only ones; for thousands of years the Oak has been revered by many cultures from Druids to Romans.
Each culture had a similar reverence for the Oak, that of associating their most supreme god with the tree. The Greeks felt the Oak was sacred to Zeus, the Romans similarly, Jupiter; Celts, Dagda and Teutonic tribes, Thor. It is no coincidence that each of these gods is associated with fierce weather-rain, thunder, lightning and power and therefore not surprising that the reverence for the Oak may have evolved as the tree seems to be struck by lightning more than any other. (In actual fact this may be more to do with the mere fact that they were the largest, tallest trees in the landscape at the time and the lower electrical resistance of the wood than most trees.) The god Thor, the eldest son of Odin, had a magical hammer crafted by dwarves from the wood of a sacred Oak tree. Mjolnir, or Thor’s hammer, represented the destructive power of thunder and lightning but was also used as a symbol of fertility in marriages, death and rebirth at funerals and in accepting a new born child as a symbol of protection and strength. Thor rode in a chariot of oak, which produced the rumblings of thunder and sparks of lightning from its wheels as his goats drew it across the sky.
The great size of the oak may have had much to do with the folklore which surrounds it. In addition to the association with the gods, Roman emperors wearing a crown of oak and, in more modern times, the Royal connection with Clan Hamilton, (the Clan badge shows oak leaves and acorns,) lifted the esteem of the tree in common life. Children would wear oak leaves and oak apples as part of a Celtic custom lasting into the 1850’s, and for Oak Apple Day (29th May) which commemorates the Restoration of Charles II after he hid in an Oak tree to evade capture. Royal Oak Day, as it is sometimes called, is not often celebrated now with a couple of notable exceptions. In Worcester the Town Hall is decorated with Oak leaves and in St Neot’s a procession makes its way through the village to the church where the Oak branch is hoisted up to the top of the bell tower. The celebration day has latterly been taken over by the Spring Bank Holiday.
Specific Oaks have been given names, but more generally many parishes had an Oak tree which became known as the Gospel oak because the Gospels were read out beneath it especially in Spring. In Scotland the Grief tree or Gallows tree was normally seen on high ground where Clan chieftains hung their enemies and this could be seen from miles around. These hills gave rise to the name “Gallows Hill”. Even the Round Table of Arthurian legend was supposedly made of one slice from an oak bole.
Individual Oaks include Major Oak in Sherwood Forest where Robin Hood met with his Merry Men; Gog and Magog (the last giants to roam England) were on the processional route to Glastonbury Tor; the Topless Oaks in Bradgate Park were pollarded following the beheading of Lady Jane Grey in 1554 as a sign of mourning and the St. Lawrence family line is said to come to an end if the large Oak at Howth Castle in Co. Dublin falls, little wonder then that the branches are held up with strong supports!
Even names have been derived from the tree, Druid could be derived from the Gaelic Duir which meant “men of Oak” and in Ireland, Derry is derived from the Gaelic doire meaning “oakwood”, Derry being regularly used in place names throughout Ireland.
Many farming cultures studied the plants and weather associated with their activity, and we have all been taught rhymes for predicting the seasons. This was also true for the Oak:
“If the oak before the ash,
Then we’ll only have a splash.
If the ash before the oak,
Then we’ll surely have a soak.”
The Celts believed in the two kings of life and death, The Holly king ruled over winter and death while the Oak king ruled over life and summer in this rhyme:
“The oak and the holly when they are both full grown,
The Oak fights the Holly king on a midsummer’s morn.
The Oak beats the Holly king and reigns for half a year
But the holly rises up again when winter draws near.”
Whilst this tree is steeped in mythology and folklore, the practical uses for its timber are difficult to underestimate. Not only is the wood prized for its strength and durability by shipwrights and house builders, the Tudors made very good use of Oak timbers still in evidence all over the country today, but its beautiful colour makes it valued by cabinet makers and wood carvers. The elasticity of newly felled wood and its resistance to the effects of alcohol made it ideal for use in the Cooperages around the land. And finally the coffin of Edward the Confessor in Westminster Abbey is made of oak, split lengthwise and hollowed out to contain the body, although the tomb is made of marble.
The bark has a distinctive grey-brown, gnarled and furrowed appearance. It has a very high tannin content and can be used in tanning leather. Large amounts of bark were shipped north from managed woodlands in England to Glasgow during the industrial revolution to the tanning industry in the City. Dyes can also be created from the bark. By mixing with copper a purplish colour is produced used in the Highlands to dye woollens and yarns, mixed with alum brown dyes result and yellow comes from a mixture of bark and “salt of tin”. A black dye for cloth can be produced from oak bark and acorns mixed with a combination of iron salts, but by using Oak Galls or Oak apples the colour is so intense it can be used for ink.
Not only can the tree be fully utilised if felled, but while it lives and grows it helped to sustain the village; acorns were collected for fodder, particularly pigs, but ground into a fine flour acorns could be used to make bread. The shards of twigs and litter dropped by the tree is good kindling used in smoke houses preserving fish and cheese.
As if the Oak needed another feather to its cap, the medieval medicinal qualities were numerous. From bruised leaves applied to wounds to help healing and alleviate inflammation to relieving the early stages of Consumption (TB) every part of the Oak tree could be used either medicinally or magically for healing purposes. The medicinal concoctions could be made in a variety of ways too, grinding bark to take as snuff or boiling bark with spirits to use as a mouthwash and the thin skin of acorns used to cover open wounds and cuts.
Little wonder this magnificent tree is known as the King of the Forest- “From little acorns, mighty Oak trees grow.”
Most of the oaks in our woodlands are Sessile Oaks, Quercus petraea, and there are very few of them, so those we have need to be cherished, and many of the properties of the oaks described can be applied to both species.