“Ah, the mighty oak!”
I literally uttered these words aloud, strolling alone, on the north end of McGilvra Boulevard East. There it stood, nearing 100 feet in height, a perfect specimen of the pin oak (Quercus palustris). I have passed this tree hundreds of times. The difference was that it was leafless on that recent day. The structure, the stature, the power of the tree stood out in naked splendor. It was not unlike rounding the corner of the Accademia in Florence and looking down the hall to see Michelangelo’s David for the first time (a memorable moment that made my wife burst into tears). No hyperbole here, that oak on that day was equally moving to me.
Pin oak is, according to the American Nursery Association, the most widely planted shade and street tree in the United States. The genus it comes from is vast — over 500 species. The variations are many, from towering hardwood timber trees, picturesque broad-leafed evergreens (often dripping with Spanish moss), to decorative shrubs. All are native to the Northern hemisphere; all produce acorns.
Pin oak is native to North America, covering a wide range from central North Carolina up to southern Ontario, out to western Kansas and northwestern Oklahoma. It is considered a valuable lumber tree, its strong wood famous for flooring and furniture. It’s perfectly suited for our climate and prefers acidic soil. With a mature spread of up to 40 feet, the tree needs space, but planted on the south or west side of a house it provides privacy, summer shade, and then defoliates to let in warming winter sunlight.
Around the world and throughout history, oaks have often been great supporting characters in the drama of life. A symbol of strength and stability, they are mentioned in Exodus, Ezekiel, Isaiah and in Genesis, where Abraham, sitting under an oak, was greeted by God and two angels disguised as travelers, to whom he gave hospitality. Aristotle is translated as saying, “Each human being is bred with a unique set of potentials that yearn to be fulfilled as surely as the acorn yearns to become the oak.” Point being, here, that oaks have stood as symbols for the best in human nature. Who did not hear an elementary school teacher admonish, “You must be strong as an oak!”
In England, Druids believed that the oak tree is host to the strength and energy of their gods. To catch a falling oak leaf brought prosperity and good fortune. The Celtic for oak is “Duir,” from which came the world Druid. If myth is to be believed, Robin Hood’s merry band climbed oaks to wait in ambush for the Sheriff of Nottingham and his men. Sherwood Forest boasts English oaks that predate William the Conqueror (1066 AD). It was under an oak at Hatfield Palace in 1558 that Elizabeth I was told that she was queen upon the death of her half sister Mary. Shakespeare references oaks 36 times in plays.
In Irish mythology, the oak symbolizes truth, courage and wisdom. The oak is the national tree of Germany. Ancient Germanic tribes held their tribal councils under oak trees. Germania wears a crown of oak leaves, symbolizing heroism.
In America, St. Martinville, Louisiana’s Evangeline Oak is a tourist attraction. It was here that Evangeline and Gabriel reunited in Longfellow’s epic poem about the Arcadian Exile of 1755. The poem represented a momentous historic incident, and the pair of lovers are believed to be based on actual people who found each other under that oak. Near Bloomington, Illinois, Lincoln delivered several speeches between 1855 and 1860 standing under an oak. In 1976, that tree died but was replaced in 1980. The American philosopher and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson used the oak in metaphor, promoting the belief of mid-19th century Transcendentalism that there is inherent goodness in humankind and nature: “The creating of a thousand forests is in one acorn.”
To reiterate: Oaks figure into our culture and have consistently been used to articulate the strength and stability and the best virtues within each of us. Their nuts feed over 100 species of vertebrate wildlife. The limbs and cavities house birds and a host of other animals and insects. The leaves, bark and roots are home to innumerable organisms. Their roots stabilize soil, the foliage produces oxygen … the list, not uncommon to many natural things, goes on and on.
Raw acorns contain tannins, making them bitter tasting, if not dangerous to eat, but by leaching these nuts, the tannin can be extracted. The Miwok people, native to Northern California, foraged acorns as a substantial part of their diet. They were stored and eaten year around, most often ground up into flour with a stone mortar and pestle, then baked into bread in earthen ovens. A Miwok family consumed between 1,500 to 2,000 pounds of acorns each year.
Apropos of Emerson’s quote, oaks are extremely easy to propagate. Ask any squirrel. These critters collect the acorns, often burying them to eat later in winter. Often, the stored acorns go unearthed and sprout. If you want to start an oak from seed, put five or six acorns (seed caps removed) in a large pot of sterile soil, where foraging animals can’t get them. You may want to cover the top of the pot with chicken wire. Squirrels and birds are resourceful and, if they think food is there, they’ll dig into a garden container. By the spring following the autumn in which you gathered the acorns, you’ll be surprised by the number that sprout. Let them go for a year or two, then, in late February, when the seedlings are still dormant, transplant them into much larger pots or directly into the ground. Water the plants liberally for the first two or three summers, then turn the job over to nature.
Thirty years ago, my son and I planted an oak seedling at our house in the upper Skagit Valley. It was grown from an acorn picked up in Koblenz, Germany, under a tree at the point of land where the Moselle River empties into the Rhine. That tree is now well over 20 feet tall and a living reminder of family adventures, steadfast values and love of nature.
Well, there I stood, on a cold winter day, looking up at the magnificent, leafless oak you see pictured. Enamored of that plant as a horticultural specimen, the sight also stirred my intellect. Why had the genus oak figured so prominently into so many cultures? Such moments always take me into the past and then, unexpectedly, propel me into thoughts of the future. So, here we are, the new year is upon us. ’Tis time to make a wish, methinks … something universal, something with the best of us in it, something oak-like.
OK, I wish that each of our readers would find an acorn to plant with a child. Tell the stories, the history, the myths, explain the gardening process. Watch, over the next couple of years, as the seedling gets up and going. Then go, together, and plant it in the ground. There’s much more to it than just another tree in a world in need of reforestation. You’ll be teaching gardening skills, cementing the notion that trees can be cultivated relatively easily, all in the process of sustaining nature. You’ll be instilling the message of strength, stability, farsightedness, all of which will root and flourish in the child’s mind as the years march on. There will be a living reminder of all that, scattering other acorns to collect, other trees to propagate. The benefits are innumerable. So it goes: Great oaks from tiny acorns grow.