Dear Readers, ‘The Trees that Made Britain – An Evergreen History’ by Archie Miles was apparently made into a television series in 2006 and I can see why – it’s full to bursting with interesting facts about our native trees. I’m sorry I missed the programmes, but there’s something rather nice about reading at your own pace without being overwhelmed by images or (increasingly) overblown background music. There is a new TV series featuring David Attenborough called ‘The Mating Game’, where the music is so overwhelming that it’s difficult to concentrate. How I hate it when the music is designed to tell you what to feel – I blame Steven Spielberg meself.
But I digress, as usual.
I will be reading this book for a while, so today here are a few facts about that most English of trees, the Oak. Except that there are two species, the Pedunculate or English Oak (Quercus robur) and the Sessile Oak (Quercus petraea). Now, one of these species has short stems on the leaves and long stems on the acorns, and the other species has long stems on the leaves and short stems on the acorns. And do you think I can remember which is which? Well, now I will, because a peduncle is a long stem, and sessile comes from the Latin sessilis, meaning ‘low of sitting’, which is not too far from ‘no stem’ in my mind. All I need to remember now is that both terms relate to the acorns and I’ll be in business for once.
Then, Miles discusses Lammas growth, which I had never heard of. Apparently, oaks often throw a new flush of growth around 1st August (Lammas Day), to replace the leaves that were lost to insect infestations earlier in the year. As Miles puts it:
“During this time the tree will bear two distinct sets of leaves, the older foliage having matured to a dark green, contrasting with the bright green (or in some cases slightly reddish) colour of the new.”
Has anyone else noticed this? Something to look out for in years to come, I think.
Miles also talks about ‘stag-headed oaks’, where the canopy on older trees has receded, leaving dead branches sticking out through the live growth. I’ve always thought of this as a bad sign, but Miles points out that it’s a way for the tree to preserve its strength – a smaller canopy needs a much smaller root system, so it’s less ‘expensive’ for the tree to maintain. I suspect that it also reduces the tree’s exposure to the extremes of wind and weather that younger trees are maybe more able to resist.
In his section on ‘The Useful Oak’, Miles talks about the role of the oak in shipbuilding. Until the second half of the nineteenth century when iron hulls were introduced, wood and especially oak was the principal material used for the creation of ships. Nelson’s flagship, HMS Victory, took the timber of 6000 trees, 90% of which was oak, with elm for the keel and fir, pine and spruce for the masts and yards. The ship cost £63,176 to build, the equivalent of building an aircraft carrier today.
Interestingly, though, Miles points out that the most valuable commodity ever extracted from oakwoods was not the timber, but the bark. Huge quantities were used in the tanning industry from 1780 to the mid nineteenth century, with coppiced oakwoods being managed on rotation to satisfy the demand for the commodity. Miles describes the process:
“In the spring, when the sap was rising, great gangs of men and women would head into the woods, the men to cut and carry, the women to strip the bark with distinctive spoon-bladed knives called barking irons or peeling irons”.
There is a fascinating article here about the Dartmoor ‘rippers’, the people who stripped the bark in the oakwoods of the area. This was a massive industry: an average tannery could get through a ton of bark in a week. Who knew? Not me, for sure.
And finally, Miles considers the myths and legends that surround the oak tree. Oaks that bore mistletoe were sacred to the Druids, and the mistletoe retained its mystical healing powers provided it was never dropped – its magic came from its never having touched the ground. Felling a mistletoe oak was considered a terrible deed, one that would bring disaster to all those involved. It’s a great shame that we haven’t retained such a sense of the importance of trees.
Many churches contain carvings of oak leaves and acorns, and as with so many things, these symbols provide a link to the pagan past. Acorns were thought to provide protection against lightning strikes, which is why you’ll often find them carved on stair banisters or as toggles for pulling blinds. People used to carry acorns in their pockets, not just to prevent themselves from being electrified unexpectedly but also because the acorn was thought to confer good health and fertility. It’s probably no wonder that the Green Man, another pagan figure who sometimes crops up as a sculpture in old churches, is often crowned with oak leaves.
And so I learned a lot about oaks from this wonderful book. The next chapter is on Ash, so let’s see what comes out of my study of that fine tree.
Photo One by Rosser1954, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Two by Kate Jewell / Stag-headed oak, Croxton Park