The Mighty Oak
By Audrey Stallsmith
The Druids waved their golden knives
And danced around the Oak
When they had sacrificed a man;
But though the learned search and scan
No single modern person can
Entirely see the joke.
G. K. Chesterton—“The Song of the Oak”
In March, the month that celebrates Celtic culture, it’s fitting to feature the tree from which the Druids probably derived their name--the Gaelic word for oak being duir. In return, the Celts gave the king of the forest its official title, quercus, from quer (“fine”) and cuez (“tree”).
Many other cultures have also found the oak to be very fine. It has appeared on both British and German coins and remains the national tree of those countries as well as our own. Although a slow grower, the oak can achieve massive stature. So it symbolized power and the favor of the gods, with its leaves often crowning kings and other victors. As a result those leaves stand, in the Language of Flowers, for bravery.
King Arthur’s round table was supposedly constructed of a single slice from a huge oak. (The copy displayed in the Great Hall at Winchester is believed to date only from the time of Henry VII and is composed of many smaller pieces of wood.) The original could still exist somewhere since well-matured oak can be, as Mrs. Grieve writes in A Modern Herbal, “practically indestructible.”
Quercus is also something of a guardian angel, since its presence can protect other trees from blight. When you consider that mistletoe often grows on its branches and truffles among its roots, it’s easy to see how the oak tree came to stand for “hospitality” and to be considered magical! Its “apples,” actually galls, were frequently employed in fortune telling.
According to Gerard, “the Oke Apples being broken in sunder about the time of the withering, do foreshew the sequell of the yeare, as the expert Kentish husbandmen have observed by the living things found in them: as if they finde an Ant, they foretell plenty of graine to ensue; if a white worme like a Gentill or Magot, then they prognosticate murren (disease) of beasts and cattell; if a spider, then (say they) we shall have a pestilence or some such like sickenesse to follow amongst men: these things the learned also have observed and noted; for Matthiolus writing upon Dioscorides saith, that before they have an hole through them, they containe in them either a flie, a spider, or a worme; if a flie then warre insueth, if a creeping worme, then scarcitie of victuals; if a running spider, then followeth great sicknesse or mortalitie.”
An old saying contends the oak can also forecast the weather by how early or late it leafs out in the spring.
If the Oak’s before the Ash,
Then you’ll only get a splash:
If the Ash before the Oak,
Then you may expect a soak.”
Since the largest oaks were often hollow, they sometimes shielded outcasts. After his defeat by Cromwell at Worcester, Charles II reportedly hid in such a tree at Boscobel. Oak Apple Day, May 29, often celebrated by the wearing of an oak leaf or gall, fetes his restoration to the throne.
You can find at least one of the oak’s several hundred types almost anywhere in the world since, as Gerard states, it “doth scarcely refuse any ground.” There are over 80 varieties in the U.S. alone.
Oak bark has been used to tan leather, and to color fabrics a variety of brown, yellow, purplish, and red shades. The tree’s sawdust was traditionally used to dye fustian—a heavy cloth woven from cotton and flax and often napped like corduroy.
In addition to its honey-colored wood, the oak produces acorns that have traditionally been fed to hogs. The poor, though probably less enthusiastic about the acrid taste, also ground those “nuts” into flour for themselves during times of famine. (The flavor is reportedly improved by drying, with white oaks producing the best—or least bitter—acorns.)
Oak leaves, employed as mulch, are supposed to repel slugs, cutworms, and grubs. And those leaves are sometimes burned inside greenhouses to fumigate the plants, though that could, I suspect, be a rather tricky method!
Tea brewed from oak’s strongly astringent bark once treated both diarrhea and dysentery. Here in the U.S., the Iroquois used that tannic acid to heal burns and rashes. John Heinerman in his Encyclopedia of Fruits, Vegetables, and Herbs also recommends oak tea to repair liver injury and to help prevent hardening of the arteries. Jethro Kloss' Back to Eden calls white oak tree “one of the best remedies for piles or hemorrhoids” as well as “hemorrhages in the lungs, stomach, and bowels” and “excess menstrual flow.”
Since oaks loom so large in the landscape, they frequently served as landmarks—to divide parishes for example. A pastor and his congregation, walking the bounds of their district to bless it, would frequently stop in the shade of those oaks to pray. The poet, Robert Herrick, wrote:
Dearest, bury me
Under that holy oke, or Gospel Tree;
Where, though thou see’st not, thou may'st think upon
Me, when you yearly go’st Procession.”
Ever since Abraham made his covenant with God beneath the oaks of Mamre (probably quercus coccifera or evergreen oaks), treaties of one kind or another have frequently been sealed beneath a prominent quercus. And people who didn’t like the pact would frequently try to kill the tree under which it was enacted, even though that giant was only a symbol.
It’s important to remember that the oak--like all of nature—shouldn’t be revered, since it only points to Someone much greater than itself. The original oaks at Mamre are long gone, after all, but God’s promise stands forever.
Plant plate is from Kohler's Medizinal Pflanzen, courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Garden Library.