I wanted to write about oak trees because there is much to be said for this common native species of tree. The oak is one of Britain’s most common trees, and is one of the most widespread hardwoods in the northern hemisphere.
The oak family has great variety, but despite this, oaks share several distinctive characteristics, one being their impressive stature, with mature species growing as tall as 100 feet in height. Most species also share a common shape, showing off a perfectly round mass of leaves and branches.
The fruit of all oaks is known as acorns, which are instantly recognisable. As the fruit ripens on the tree, the green acorn takes on a darker colour, before loosening and falling to the floor below. Acorns are a rich food source for many wild creatures, including mice and squirrels, but if left, will germinate into an oak sapling.
For a long time the oak has been employed as a symbol; whether it is for the Woodland Trust as the charity logo, or as the home of an oaky character on children’s television programme (whose head was also made from oak, as it so happened… miraculous really). The oak, despite its quiet and non-showy resolve, has thus managed to attract cultural and national significance, yet this is not a recent feat.
Richard Mabey’s The Cabaret of Plants explores how this “human image making” has shaped our relationship with trees (particularly oaks), and has done for hundreds of years. Whether in Ancient Greek, Roman and Celtic cultures, the oak played a part, whether in religious ceremonies, adorning the heads of rulers as a crown of leaves, or as a medicine. In the medieval period, the “Green Man” mythic image became a point of intrigue: with sculptures depicting a person either masked or growing oak leaves, becoming a contentious feature of churches and buildings, with no one quite sure whether it was to be worshipped or feared.
There is such a multitude of reasons for our fascination with the oak, but also the ability to live for centuries, and see so much change, more so than any human ever will, is remarkable, especially at a time when we ponder cryogenically preserving ourselves. Several trees have been declared the “oldest oak in Britain”, including the Bowthorpe Oak in Lincolnshire, and are well worth a walk and a look. Oaks seem to gain attention and respect as they age, perhaps we could learn something in our own treatment of older people?