The Oak (Quercus robur) - Britain's most Significant Tree?

The monarch oak, the patriarch of trees, shoots rising up and spreads by slow degrees;

Three centuries he grows and three he stays, supreme in state, and in three more decays.

John Dryden (1631-1700)

An Oak Tree in a Hayfield, John Constable, 1810,   V & A

An Oak Tree in a Hayfield, John Constable, 1810, V & A

To begin at the beginning, the acorn, remarkable in its beauty and its potential, “great oaks from little acorns grow”-as indeed they do-provided that the acorn can get to an open piece of land to germinate and grow. Enter Garrulous glandarius, the Jay. Acorns are the staple food for Jays in winter, they can carry 4 in their adapted gullet and 1 in their bill and they bury them in soft earth for future consumption; amazingly a single Jay can bury up to 3000 acorns in a single winter!

Oaks grow and mature slowly taking 40 to 80 years to produce their first good crop of acorns with full production between 80 and 120 years. It is estimated that a mature tree produces 50,000 to 90,000 acorns in a good year (Tyler 2008)

As a mature tree the English Oak is second to none: A single 400 yr old oak produces 234,000 litres of oxygen per year (1 person’s supply) and supports more than 2,000 species of mammal, bird, invertebrate, fungus and lichen.

Today there are around 121 million oak trees in Britain’s woods and almost a million in London, they would cost £1 billion to replace!

When mature oaks attain girths in excess of 6m and hollow trunk cavities with some dead wood in the canopy they achieve the status of Ancient Oak. England has 3,320 Ancient Oaks (Ancient Tree Inventory 2016), more than any other country in Europe.  Of these, 115 have girths of 9m or more whereas only 96 oaks of this size are known in the rest of Europe.

No other trees have the same significance for biodiversity as ancient Oaks.

The English Oak is significant in so many other ways: There are 446 pubs named “The Royal Oak” named after the Boscobel Oak in Shropshire in which King Charles 1 hid to evade Cromwell’s troops following the Battle of Worcester in 1651; 6,000 oaks went into Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory; 200 oaks, each 100 years old, produced HMS Endeavour in which Captain Cook sailed to Australia and New Zealand on his first voyage of discovery from 1768 to 1771; the space shuttle Endeavour was named after her and a piece of oak wood used to make Endeavour went to the moon with Apollo 15 in 1971.

Historically oaks provided trunks for building, bark for tanning, branches for charcoal making, slow burning firewood.

Oak Gall Ink was used across Europe until 19th Century, vast numbers of medieval and renaissance documents are written with this purple black ink which turns rusty brown with time. To make it, oak galls, Iron Sulphate, gum arabic and water were mixed in equal measure.

In conclusion I leave you with the words of W. H. Hudson (1846-1922):

When the oak is in its glade light grene, for that is the most vivid and beautiful of all vegetable greens, and the prospect is the greenest and most soul refreshing to be found in England. The valley is all wooded and the wood is all oak-a continuous oak-wood stretching away, mile on mile to the sea. The sensation experienced at the sight of this prospect is like that of the traveller in a dry desert when he comes to a clear running stream and drinks his fill of water and is refreshed.