After starting as a small acorn, oak trees can grow to a huge size and survive life facing torrential rains, bitter winters, drought, disease and raging fires — but not man’s ax.
The oak is a treasure to humans and animals and is well recorded in history since ancient times — not really surprising because people are like oak trees:
“The acorn does not know that it will become a sapling. The sapling does not remember when it was an acorn, and only dimly senses that it will become a mighty oak. The oak recalls fondly when it was a sapling, loves being a mighty oak, and joyfully creates new acorns,” says writer J. Earp.
Idaho’s biggest oak tree is a bur oak (Quercus macrocarp) in the Julia Davis Park in Boise, standing 105 feet tall with a trunk waist just over 14 feet. Sadly, it receives little mention by Boise Parks & Recreation.
Oaks are not native to Idaho, but in addition to the Boise bur oak, there is at least one English oak and one northern red oak.
There are plenty of really tall trees in Idaho that are not oaks — four of them tallest in America for their specie:
• Engelmann Spruce, Big Spruce Creek, Boise County.
• Whitebark Pine, Imogene Lake, Custer County.
• Rocky Mountain Lodgepole Pine, Box Creek, Valley County.
• Yellow Willow, Lemhi River near Leadore, Lemhi County.
The 229-foot tall Western White Pine at Floodwood Creek in Clearwater County — the tree 60 feet higher than Niagara Falls — may be the tallest tree in Idaho.
(Idaho record tree reports are inconclusive.)
“Encino” is the Spanish word for oak. In Encino, Southern California, a magnificent oak tree called the Encino Oak Tree or Lang Oak (Ouercus agrifolia) that was witness to a thousand years of history.
It was shade for the Chumash and Tvonga Indians for centuries, and was there when Father Juan Crespi and Gaspar de Portolá headed north to help father Junipero Serra build the nine California Missions from San Diego to Carmel.
From the dawn of the 20th century, people began replacing nature’s gift in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley with roads, buildings, houses, power lines and pollution.
Surviving it all, the Encino Oak became a beloved icon of the city. In 1963, it was declared Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument No. 24.
On Feb. 7, 1998, a rare El Nińo storm swept the valley and toppled the ancient oak. It couldn’t be saved, and many locals wept as they watched chain saws ripping it apart.
Only the stump and memorial plaque remain.
Now oak trees in many areas are protected, but those oaks that remain still face the ravages of drought and deadly beetles that tunnel through the bark into the wood.
Oak trees have long been admired by mankind for historically assigned virtues that would be noble when applied to humans. Images of oak trees, leaves and acorns are found in cultures around the world.
Symbolically, they represent strength, endurance, morality, resistance, knowledge, honor, nobleness, wisdom, longevity, wholesomeness and stability, and other attributes.
Being identified with those qualities makes the oak tree, oak leaf and acorn popular motifs in heraldry.
And for the same reason, many countries have adopted the oak tree as a national symbol: England, Estonia, France, Germany, Lithuania, Poland, the U.S., Spain’s Basque region, Wales and Serbia.
Mankind has talked about oaks and acorns since ancient times — some say as early as the Mesolithic Era or “Stone Age.”
Greek mythology says in northwestern Greece at the site of Dodona, the oracle of Zeus, priests made divinations while sitting under a sacred oak tree by interpreting the rustling of the leaves and noting the flight of pigeons in the tree.
Homer wrote about it in the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey” when the heroes Patroclus and Odysseus visited the oracle for protection and advice. Even Roman Emperor Julian came to the oracle and sacred oak.
Those who have studied medical history know about the early Greek physician Galen (120-216 A.D.). He wrote, “Acorns afford as good nourishment as many sorts of grain; that in ancient times men lived on acorns alone, and that the Arcadians continued to eat them, long after the rest of Greece had made use of bread corn.”
Roman writer and naturalist Pliny the Elder (23-79 A.D.) also wrote about acorns: “It is a well-known fact that acorns at this very day constitute the wealth of many nations … when there is a scarcity of corn they are dried and ground, the meal being employed for making a kind of bread.”
One report postulated that oak trees in Britain got there when prehistoric migrants brought acorns from Europe over an ice bridge that once linked the British Isles with the continent.
In England, the Druids also believed the oak imparted divine knowledge by the leaves whispering secrets. They also believed that eating acorns would give them magical powers and the gift of prophecy.
The oak tree may also be credited for Britain’s mighty navy to “rule the waves” for centuries with sturdy warship keels and ribs built with oak wood. Church and building rafters traditionally were also made of oak.
Also, burning oak wood produced intense heat for smeltering iron weapons.
Today, oaken barrels — sometimes burnt inside — are claimed to be best for aging Scotch whiskey, sherry and other beverages.
Oak trees are loaded with tannin that is commonly used for tanning hides, dyeing and oil, but it also makes acorns too bitter to eat unless leached out.
The oak tree, oak leaf and acorn designs have been used worldwide to decorate churches, cathedrals, buildings, books, gardens, statues, monuments, tombstone, furniture, works of art, picture frames, wall-paper and in a myriad of other ways.
Hundreds of years ago, sailing vessels were made of wood, the keel and ribs usually built with hardwood oak because of its durability. Planking was sometimes oak, but usually softwoods such as pine, larch or cedar.
One British war vessel would need 2,000 trees. Because trees were plentiful in the American colonies, ship building became a booming industry and American shipbuilders soon earned a reputation for making the best ships in the world.
The Mayflower was oak.
It took 200 workers to build just one 150-ton ship in those days — some of it being slave labor. Construction time would be from 60 to 100 days.
Most of the American ship builders were in New England and played a big role in developing America’s early economy. By the late 1680s, “there were more than 2 dozen sawmills around Maine and Massachusetts,” according to one report.
They were kept busy because there was plenty of pine, oak, maple, beech, birch, hickory, ash and cypress available nearby.
In 1667, a Swede named David Lawrence built a sawmill at Penn’s Woods in Delaware beside a stream in the forest. It’s still operating more than 350 years later.
For thousands of years before the white man came, Native Americans were eating acorns. They could be stored for years as a hedge against famine — like the squirrels do. Once the bitter tannin was leached out, the acorns were nourishing and tasty.
In Idaho there weren’t any oaks and acorns, and local Indians ate camas roots instead as a staple of their diet, but elsewhere in America acorns were a big deal.
“Gathering, processing, cooking, storing, and eating acorn were important and time-consuming activities, and lives revolved around them,” notes one report.
“These rhythms of life were severely disrupted during Euro-American contact, conquest and settlement.”
But acorns are still part of American Indian culture even though preparing them for eating is a laborious process.
Coast Miwok-Pomo elder Julia Parker says, “I know that lots of times I think, why do I do this? We don’t eat it everyday.
“It’s a special food … to them in the earlier years — and it is still life to a lot of us who want to learn to prepare acorns to eat …
“We should not lose the old ways.”
Finally — even poets love the oak tree:
“The wise old owl,
He sat on an oak.
The more he heard,
The less he spoke.
The less he spoke,
The more he heard.
Why can’t I be like that wise old bird?”
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Contact Syd Albright at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Who knows how many kinds of oak?
The oak (genus Quercus) can be tree or a shrub and it’s hard to tell exactly how many different kinds there are in the world. Articles about the oak vary in their estimates from 200 to 800. Oaks can be evergreen or deciduous and are native to the Northern Hemisphere from cool temperate to tropical areas in the Americas, Asia, Europe and North Africa.
“In the 17th century, a juice extracted from acorns was administered to habitual drunkards to cure them of their condition or else to give them the strength to resist another bout of drinking.”
— Author unknown, Wikipedia
War time coffee…
Acorns have been used as substitute coffee during wartime when food was scarce. Confederate soldiers during the Civil War drank acorn coffee when Union soldiers cut off regular coffee supplies. The Germans also drank acorn coffee during World War II — they called it “Ersatz Kaffee.”
Oaks produce more acorns when the trees are spaced well apart and not competing for water and soil nutrients. Forest fires often help by destroying sapling oaks, while the old oaks survive.
“The bones of the oak tree that had stood by the spring branch during my youth were scattered about the ground, pieces of the skeleton of a majestic life that had passed while I was off growing up and old.”
— Dan Groat, An Enigmatic Escape: A Trilogy
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