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?
I love Honesty (Lunaria Annua), the plant that is, with its beautifully enchanting and intricate seed pods on display every winter. Flowers are not the only attraction in gardens, and I prefer the biennial in this form, when it goes to seed, much more than when it displays pink, purple or white flowers in the spring and summer.
I am quite fond of this unique display that Honesty provides in the winter, as it not only reminds us that plants are remarkable things with such intricate designs, but also of the yearly garden cycle. Despite bare branches lacking colour and flowerless flowerbeds, these seeds will soon provide growth and colour in the garden once again in the subsequent season. And the cycle repeats once again.
Just a few weeks ago I was walking in Botanique in Brussels (the Botanical Gardens of Brussels), and also in Portugal this summer when walking in a forested area. Both times, I couldn’t fail to notice the sun illuminating on the seed pods of the Honesty plant. The pods are disc-shaped, and almost transparent with a hint of brown. The encased seeds are dark in colour, and become more prominent if seen on a sunny day. By early to mid winter the seed will naturally fall from the pods onto the soil below, sowing itself, and new seedlings will emerge the following year. Alternatively, seed can be saved, traded, or given away. I think our gardens could benefit from a little bit of Honesty at this time of year.