Oak trees

by James Alexander-Sinclair

I always get a slight frisson looking at a strapping young tree that I once planted as an insubstantial whip.

Mature oak tree, seen from belowOver the past few weeks we have been wrapped up in a flurry of tree planting. It is the very tail end of the planting season and, as I am mostly pretty disorganised, things that should have been done earlier in the season are being done now.

Over the 25-odd years of my life as a gardener I have planted thousands and thousands of trees (many, but by no means all of them, with my own hands), in many places, from Scotland to Cornwall. Some of those trees are 20 years old now and I confess that, occasionally, I make diversions to see them. I always get a slight frisson looking at a strapping young tree that I once planted as an insubstantial whip.

Although alder, willow and ash grow satisfyingly fast, I get more satisfaction from oaks than any other tree.

The area around here used to be an enormous oak forest, through which kings rode, pursuing deer and the more leaden-footed peasantry. Many of the trees were felled to build the ships that ensured Britain’s naval supremacy throughout the Napoleonic Wars and beyond. Chunks of Northamptonshire oak charged around the Nile and Trafalgar with Nelson, and the forests are mentioned in the diaries of Samuel Pepys. The navy even has a song about it.

Apart from the history, here is a short list of interesting things about oaks:

1. Oaks are host to an awful lot of insects, lichens and birds - not to mention the various fungi that hang around the root systems.

2. Because of the number of feeding insects, oak leaves look a bit shabby by July but, miraculously, the tree then produces another flush of young leaves (especially on younger trees).

3. An oak tree will produce its first crop of acorns when aged about 40. Some years there can be up to 50,00 per tree, other years hardly any.

4. The oldest specimen of oak in England is probably the Bowthorpe Oak in Lincolnshire, which is 1000 years old. There is a specimen in Stelmuze, Lithuania that is supposedly 1500 years old. (The village also has a building especially designed for imprisoning serfs.)

5. Oak galls (swellings caused by tiny wasps) were used in the manufacture of high quality ink.

6. The oak has very hard and deeply fissured bark (thus providing shelter for the aforementioned bugs). Hugging them may not be that comfortable, but you can at least be assured of a thorough exfoliation.

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Gardeners' World Web User 14/03/2011 at 15:57

I looked up the Stelmužė oak on Google Maps - they reckon it's under a lake

Gardeners' World Web User 14/03/2011 at 17:21

My garden backs onto a park of ancient woodland in North London. Mostly oak and hornbeam, but the old oaks with their great extending boughs were very damaged by the 1987 gales and many have now come down. Those that still stand again have hugely extended boughs that seem to be inclined to come down so easily if there is heavy rain when they are in leaf. Can oaks be protected from such traumatic injury, prone to disease, by having boughs shortened?

Gardeners' World Web User 14/03/2011 at 17:23

There are few if any oak saplings in the wood, so how can oaks maintain their dominance here?

Gardeners' World Web User 14/03/2011 at 20:41

We have a class blog detailing our woodland work in Cumbria with the pupils of St Oswald's Primary ... see the following for more detail: http://humbleclass.wikispaces.com/The+Trees+of+Burneside and http://www.smithclass.org/proj/Oswald/woodlands/woodlands.htm

Gardeners' World Web User 14/03/2011 at 20:52

@Gavin - I think G-Maps is probably wrong - If you visit the official website, you can see recent pictures of the tree. @James - so that explains why the oak tree here doesn't have acorns yet - it probably isn't old enough. Learn something new every day - die and forget it all...

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