There are quite a number of plants that find a place in culture, hearts and minds. Flowers such as roses, daffodils, thistles and clover are associated with cultural identities in the UK but the English Oak has had a particularly revered place in our heritage.
Ancient European cultures venerated the Oak tree. It would often be the tallest structure in the landscape; this coupled with the high water content of the tree made it particularly prone to lightning strikes. No wonder that ancient tribes thought that Zeus, Jupiter, Dagda, Perun or Thor were trying to demonstrate their power through this tree. The Oak leaf thus became a symbol of power and strength, so can often be found in military symbolism.
There are place names such as Sevenoaks which was home to seven oak trees that were planted in Knole Park in 1902. Sadly six of them were lost in the Great Storm on October 15th 1987.
The English Oak has a special place in literature and poetry;
John Dryden (1631-1700) wrote:
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
William Boyce wrote the anthem for the Royal Navy in 1759 to include the chorus line:
Heart of oak are our ships, heart of oak are our men;
We always are ready, steady, boys, steady!
We'll fight and we'll conquer again and again.
Whilst the ancient 1000 year old Shakespeare’s Oak in Stoneleigh Abbey prompted this verse by Chandos Leigh Esq.:
Our present race it will survive.
By those who may hereafter live
In veneration held :
If by the lightning's stroke unrent,
Still flourishing, too prominent
In grandeur to be fell'd
And youth elate, in sportive mood,
Outrushing from the deep'ning wood
Sadly for the oak tree, the wood is so strong that it was used extensively for ship building. This did not necessarily mean that the whole tree was felled because very old trees tend to have branches that split and curve into the ideal shape for a boat hull, and these could be harvested without killing the tree. However, it is estimated that in 1790 the 300 ships in the Royal Navy fleet required 1,2000,000 mature oak trees to have been felled. The construction of HMS Victory alone used a total of 5500 oak trees. Barns and houses, particularly from the Tudor era were built with oak beams and are still standing.
It is not just the mature tree that means so much to us, the acorn fascinates us as well. “Mighty Oaks from little acorns grow” is a 14th century proverb that evokes hope for the future and for great things to come, still resonates with us. The trees can be up to 40 years old before they produce acorns. In a “mast year” - a bumper crop which occurs once in every 5 to 10 years, each tree will produce thousands. Acorns are food for a huge variety of animals - Wild Boar, Badgers, Wood Mice and Squirrels.
The Woodland Trust states no other tree has a greater biodiversity than that of the Oak. 2300 species of plant and animal can be found on an oak tree, 326 depend on it and 229 are rarely found elsewhere.
The new leaves feed Oak Lutestring (Cymatophorima diluta), Great Oak Beauty (Hypomecis roboraria) and the scarce Merveille du Jour moth (Moma alpium). The UK’s largest wood ant (Formica rufa group) will happily climb up to the top of the canopy in search of aphids attracted to the leaves.
Tree Pipit, Wood Warblers and Redstart are a few of the 38 species of birds that favour the Oak tree. When the bark gets old and slightly loose bats will use the nooks and crannies to roost.
Lichens, liverworts, mosses and fungi can be found in abundance on the branches and roots of a mature tree.