This post is by Ngoc Ngo, who is also an accomplished photographer:
The English countryside is full of magnificent trees, and the English Oak , Quercus robur, is among the most majestic. Known to grow from the Urals and the Caucasus, from Mount Taurus and Mount Atlas, almost to the Arctic Circle, it is a tree full of historical and mythological associations. In ancient times, massive oak forests covered most of central Europe, and oak was the favorite timber of the Greeks and Romans. Being particularly prone to lightning strikes, the oak tree was associated with the supreme gods in many ancient cultures, including Zeus, Jupiter, and Thor. Ancient kings wore crowns of oak leaves to symbolize their roles as representatives of gods on earth. In ancient Rome, it was also the custom for commanders to wear crowns of oak leaves during their victory parades.
Historically, the English valued the oak for its strength and durability, which made excellent timber for building ships and churches. Much of Tudor architecture was built with oak. Because of their size and longevity, oak trees were often planted as boundary markers. Prominent oak trees were also used as the locations for the reading of the Gospel during ceremonies, leading to their being known as Gospel Oaks. The high tannin content of the oak bark was found to be useful for tanning leather during the Industrial Revolution. Other common uses for the bark included making brown ink and a tonic for treating harness sores on horses.
The cultural significance of oak trees in England is summed up by the historian Simon Schama; “Ancient Britons were thought to have worshipped them; righteous outlaws are sheltered by them; kings on the run hide in them; hearts of oak go to sea and win empires.” The oak is a symbol of strength, refuge, longevity and resilience. Robin Hood was reputed to hide in the hollow of an oak tree. King Charles the Second also found refuge in another hollow ancient oak tree near Boscobel on September 6, 1651 before successfully reclaiming his crown. The accommodating tree became known as the Royal Oak, and today there are countless pubs in England with the same name.
Botanically, Quercus robur is in the Fagaceae family. Its common name is English Oak, or Pedunculate Oak. Its size can reach 75 to 100 feet in height and width. Its leaves are alternate, simple, obovate to obovate-oblong, 2 to 5” long, with rounded lobes, rounded apex and auriculate to rounded base. The earlobe-like (auriculate) leaf base is a distinguishing feature from the otherwise similarly shaped Q. alba leaf. There are 3 to 7 pairs of veins on the leaf, which is dark green above and pale blue-green underneath. The bark is deeply furrowed and grayish black in color. Q. robur is monoecious, and the flowers appear 7-14 days after the leaves burst. Fertilized flowers develop into acorns of about 1” long, narrow elongated conical, enclosed by a cap. The acorns ripen in the autumn and fall on the ground before the leaves drop.
The Greek botanical writer Theophrastus, writing around 300 BC noted: “The oak bears more things beside its fruit than any other tree.” The complex ecosystem of an oak tree provides the habitat for at least 350 varieties of insect, more organisms than any other trees. The insects in turn attract birds. Caterpillars and moths also feed on oak leaves. In southern England, the oak trees also host colonies of the rare Purple Emperor Butterfly in the summer months. In the autumn, the acorns that fall to the ground provide an important food source for wood pigeons, rooks, squirrels, and mice, all of which in turn attract birds of prey, such as sparrow hawks and owls.
The life expectancy of an oak averages from 200 to 400 years; however, there are specimens aged over 800 years. The oldest oak in England is thought to be the Bowthorpe Oak in Bourne, which is estimated to be over 1,000 years old. My favorite is this beautiful specimen in the countryside of Sussex, south of London. The tree stands alone in an open field dissected by a public footpath. I have spent many wonderful hours walking along this footpath, and I am always happy to see the sight of this magnificent tree, a symbol of strength and a source of so much life.