“Damned English Oak!”
The immortal words spoken by Morgan Freeman in the 1991 film, Robin Hood Prince of Thieves as he and Kevin “Doesn’t matter if I’m American” Costner attempt to break into a room in the castle to rescue Maid Marion. And he had a point – oak is a solid, natural material, which is great – unless you’re trying to break into a tower. For those that have been to Sherwood Forest, you will also note that Robin’s tree is called the Major Oak – a huge, sprawling beast of a tree, steeped in legend and folklore.
I have many favourite trees. Some by their species, others purely based on their position, shape or climbing ease, but the Oak rarely fails to stop me in my tracks. It happens to be the first tree species I learned to identify by the shape of its leaf as a child, thanks to my mum, whose tree knowledge is still pretty much superior to mine. On walks, especially in park land or where there are fields with hedgerows, I frequently stop to admire a solitary Oak, perhaps in the middle of a field, or part of the hedgerow. Even one that is felled can be beautiful, providing life for no end of creatures.
In Britain, we have five species of Oak. Only two of these are native however (pedunculate oak and the sessile oak), the others were imported. The sessile Oak in fact is the national tree of Wales. Oak trees have been part of our landscape since the end of the last Ice Age – a whopping 12,000 years. So it’s no wonder they’ve become engrained into our folklore and culture. These icons can live for over 1,000 years and to a height of 30 metres. It was thought that a branch of Oak possessed magical powers. Mistletoe growing on an Oak was also thought to carry mystical power. If you carried an acorn in your pocket, it was believed that you were protected against disease and doing so promoted long life. If it was wealth that you seeked, planting an acorn at the time of a new moon was said to bring it, and placing an acorn in a window was said to protect the house from a lightning strike. I wonder how many people stopped reading at the wealth part.
Aside from being vital to our native ecosystem, Oak has been of important use to us humans over the centuries. The Mary Rose, King Henry VIII’s flagship, was made almost solely of English oak. Around 600 trees were cut down to build her, but didn’t save her from sinking unfortunately. Staying with royalty, King Charles II hid in an Oak at Boscobel while Oliver Cromwell’s soldiers looked for him below. May 29th was designated Royal Oak Day or Oak Apple Day to commemorate the restoration of Charles II to the throne in May 1660, although evidence suggests this already existed in pre-Christian times.
I am always amazed by tree saplings, especially Oak, as I realise that one day, when I’m long gone, it will be the giant of the woods, and hopefully future generations will also gaze in wonder at it.