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English Oak (Quercus rober)

General Characteristics / ID Tips

A large, deciduous tree that is quintessential to the British countryside – to the point of being considered a national emblem. Typically growing up to 20-40 m in height with broad spreading crowns.

Look out for the distinct round-lobed leaves and characteristic acorns. The winter buds are typically orange-brown, rounded or egg-shaped and arranged in clusters.

At the peak of maturity, Oaks develop iconic, broad crowns. Later in life, the crown will begin to shrink, allowing the tree to extend its lifespan.

History & Culture

One of the most famous Oaks in England is the Royal Oak in Boscobel, Shropshire. This tree was the alleged hiding place of King Charles II whilst fleeing from the Roundheads after his defeat at the Battle of Worcester, towards the end of the English Civil War.

Sadly, the original Royal Oak was believed to have been destroyed in the seventeenth or eighteenth century. The current sentinel that we can visit in Boscobel is actually a 200-300 year old descendant of the original and is known as the ‘Son of the Royal Oak’.

Did you know?

For a piece of history in your own garden or park: saplings, certified as grown from the Son’s acorns, are available for purchase from the English Heritage Shop at Boscobel House.

Symbolically, Oaks have long been associated with strength, fortitude and wisdom due to their size, hardiness and longevity. Druidic ceremonies have often been convened in Oak groves, wedding ceremonies were historically blessed if officiated beneath the branches of an Oak and acorns were oft carried as good luck charms.

Uses

The timber of Oak is commonly used for shipbuilding, furniture, flooring, wine barrels and firewood.

Oaks are also immensely valuable to many forms of wildlife, including hundreds of insect species, countless birds and charismatic mammals such as badger, squirrel, deer and bats. There are also numerous species of fungi and lichen which will only associate with Oaks of an advanced age – making them a crucial fixture of any woodland ecosystem.

The acorns themselves are a rich source of energy for larger animals trying to fatten up during the autumn. They can even be used to make flour for bread making.

Care & Preservation

The native range of Oak is on moist, clay soils; it doesn’t well tolerate acidic or alkaline sites withs shallow chalk. Overall though, Oaks are generally low maintenance and can be cultivated with relatively few special requirements.

Across their lifetime, it is common for Oak trees to sustain wounds or accrue deadwood in their crowns. While this may appear to be a cause for concern, don’t be alarmed: the high concentrations of tannins in Oak trees are significantly effective at reducing the risk of internal decay. Additionally, dead branches within the original high crowns of Oaks provide perches for birds of prey such as buzzards and red kites.

Threats & Conservation

While long-lived and synonymous with quiet fortitude, the English Oak is not without threats.

Since their accidental introduction to the UK in 2005, Oak Processionary Moth (OPM) infestations have spread to establish a thorough foothold across most of London. With voracious appetites and a dense coating of irritating hairs, the OPM caterpillars ravage the canopies of affected oaks without any natural predators to control them. The hairs are also a hazard to health; causing skin rashes, eye irritations and breathing difficulties in humans and animals alike. At present, early identification and intensive spraying of affected trees is the only real defence against OPM caterpillars.

Acute Oak Decline is an emerging bacterial disease which typically manifests as bleeding lesions or cankers around the stem. In severe cases, this can extend to an encircling internal stem rot that prevents normal circulation of water and essential nutrients. Trees affected in this way typically become weak and die within four to six years – hence, ‘Acute’.

There is presently no cure for AOD. Good management practices, such as maintaining and enhancing soil health, are the best tool available to managers of Oak trees.

Final Thoughts

There is an old saying that ‘Oaks grow for 300 years, rest for another 300 years and then slowly decline for another 300 years’.

It remains true that the English Oak is an icon of the British Countryside, with a myriad of uses and an irreplaceable aesthetic. Ensuring that they continue to endure, and grow ancient with the dignity and fortitude for which they are well-known, is a worthy cause indeed.

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