Oaks: Know Them, Love Them, Plant Them!

Written by Ronna
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During our tree planting event, oak saplings will be planted along with maple, ash, cherry and alder saplings. These young oak trees will eventually be part of a forest that you can help plant. Think you know oaks? Think again! Get to know the oak tree more to find out why oak is a-ok!

Many of us are familiar with oak trees in one way or another. After all, oaks can be found in various parts of the world – in Asia, the Americas, Europe and Africa. Oaks come from the genus Quercus and there are around 600 species of oaks. Oaks can either be deciduous or evergreens - meaning, there are oaks that lose leaves in the winter and there are those which stay green all year-round.

Oaks can grow very high - usually around 50-80 feet, sometimes even more - and their branches and crowns spread far and wide. Because of its size, the oak tree is seen as a symbol of strength and is even recognized as the national tree of many countries, including Estonia, Germany, Moldova, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Serbia.

Oaks can live for a very, very long time. They can live up to hundreds of years and there are even known records of oak trees exceeding the age of 1,000 years! The Seven Sisters Oak tree in Louisiana, U.S. is one example. It is estimated to be 1,500 years, survived Hurricane Katrina and is still alive up to this day! Likewise, one of the oldest trees in Europe is an oak tree. It is called the Granit Oak and is found in
Bulgaria. It is now more than 1,600 years old and still counting!

Oak trees dominate the ancient forests of Europe and some even became well-known because of their historical significance. For instance, King Charles II hid in what eventually became known as the Royal Oak tree, to escape from the Roundheads after the Battle of Worcester. There is also the Queen Elizabeth Oak which is said to be the place where Elizabeth I of England was told that she was Queen.

Economic/Practical Benefits of Oaks

The oak tree has numerous economical and practical benefits to man. Its wood, which is hard and durable, is valued as a construction material for houses and buildings. They are also used for flooring and interior panels. In fact, the debating chamber of the House of Commons in England has interior panels made from oak. Oak is also used in making furniture and has been widely used in building ships.

Because its bark is rich in tannin, oak barks are used to tan leather. Medicine can also be derived from the oak bark. Acorns, the nuts from oaks, are sometimes used for making flour and coffee. Acorns served as source of food to Ancient Greeks and are also traditional food to Native Americans. In Korea, acorns are used as ingredients in making certain dishes. A word of caution though: don't just pick an acorn and eat it! It is very high in tannin and special processes need to be done to leach the tannin it contains.

Oak also has a unique place in the wine and aged drinks industry. Wine and other spirits are stored and aged in barrels made of oak, giving the drink a distinct character. It has an effect on the flavor, color, and aroma of the aged drink. Sometimes, charred oak chips are even placed into the wine barrel for added flavor. Wine corks can also be made of oak.

Oaks as Part of a Forest

Oaks play a special role in a forest. They support a variety of wildlife, plants and insect. A number of small animals have acorns as their staple food. Birds like jays, pigeons, some woodpeckers, and ducks all eat acorns. Squirrels, mice, and other rodents, also feed on acorns. Jays and squirrels even store acorns for future consumption to tide them over during the winter months.

Bigger animals like deer, pigs and bears also feed on acorns. Domestic pigs were traditionally pastured in oak groves in order to eat acorns. This practice is still done in certain areas in Spain and Portugal.

Aside from pig farmers, food connoisseurs indirectly benefit from oaks since certain types of the fungus truffle have symbiotic relationships with the oak tree.

Help us plant oaks

We invite you to plant oaks (and other trees) with us in March. The oaks that you'll help plant with Sunbeams will someday be a part of a forest teeming with life. That one oak sapling will someday be a big and mighty oak – a tree which will live for many years to come. It may not become part of history nor be known for reaching a thousand years old - but one thing is for sure, it will make the birds and squirrels happy!

This article was originally published in the February 2011 edition of the Sunbeams Newsletter.

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