Holly king of winter, oak king of summer

In the next of Liberty's blog series, she explores the great English oak...

How to identify an oak tree

The oak tree has a characteristic gnarly posture, with twisted arms that look as if they have spent thousands of years reaching out into space. In winter, the dark branches of an oak resemble veins and the little umbrellas of fainter twigs resemble capillaries.

The smooth bark of a young oak quickly becomes rough, dark and well fissured, reflecting the tree’s reputation for being the wise and elderly father of the forest. They live from 200-400 years, with some reaching as old as 800.

The buds of an oak are quite large and a brown-orange colour. They are arranged in clusters and each bud has at least three scales on it. The leaves of an oak are one of its most prominent features for identification. Its edges are neatly cut into around three lobes on each side, narrowing down to a very small stem.

Oaks are one of the longest to hold on to their leaves in winter - they turn a beautiful burnt orange colour.

In spring time appears the oaks flowers, which are long yellow green catkins. They distribute pollen by wind. The males pollinate the female catkins who then produce acorns.

 

Oak catkin

Oak catkin

The uses of an oak tree

The breathable canopy of an oak allows light to penetrate through to the forest floor, providing room for wildlife to flourish.

Their fallen leaves, once broken down, provide a rich leaf mould for numerous fungi and invertebrates and the deep crevices in their aged bark provide nesting spots for birds.

Their timber is revered as one of the best in the world for its resilience, its suppleness and its strength. It’s been used to make things like ships and furniture.

Oak bark is used in medicine to treat diarrhoea as well as an anti-inflammatory gargle for soothing sore throats. A study also showed that the bark can reduce cholesterol levels in animals.

The benefits of its bark don't stop there - the tannins it consists of can be used in leather preparation.

Oak-barrelled wine not only provides a beautiful woody aroma to the drink, but it increases the beverage’s antioxidant activity.

Historically, the acorns of an oak have been crushed into flour to be used for bread making.

Oak trees as a symbol

The oak is associated in mythology with the most powerful of the Gods, such as Zeus (Greek) and Jupiter (Roman). Lightning and thunder are ruled by these Gods (amongst other things). This is interesting because oaks are prone to lightning strikes - they are often the tallest living feature of the landscape.

Crowns of oak leaves were exchanged in royal circles. The oak has for centuries been a national symbol of strength and survival, which may be the reason for its common use in victories and in weddings.

The Druids used the oak tree in a ceremony to cure infertility and the effects of poison. They climbed an oak tree on which mistletoe was growing, sacrificed two white bulls and used the mistletoe to create the healing elixir. Ironically, mistletoe has been known to kill oak by robbing it of its nutrients.

Dramatic oak