“Storms make the oak grow deeper roots.”
Oak trees have been around for a long time. They’re from a lineage of trees that dates to the Late Cretaceous period, about 85 million years ago. The oldest oak fossils are closely related to to beech trees which suggests a common ancestor. Oak trees as we know them today emerged about 32-35 million years ago. Oaks can reach seventy feet tall and nine feet wide at their most mature height with branches that can stretch as wide as 135 feet. Oaks also live for long spans of time undisturbed. Most will live about 200 years, but some trees can live over 800 years. One oak tree planted during the reign of King John survived to see 35 later rulers crowned.
Acorns are their main distinguishing features of oaks. The acorn is actually a fruit and is formed from two components: the nut and the cupule. The nut develops from the ovary of oak’s flower and cupule develops from the scale like bracts at the base of the female flower. White, red, and black oaks have bracts that are arranged in spirals. Acorns contain the embryo of a new tree wrapped up in its hard shell. The tiny root and stem are only contained in the point of the acorn’s shell, and the rest of the hard shell is packed, egg like, with nutrient dense tissue to feed the tiny growing oak. Oaks produce about 2,000 acorns in a good production year, but only one in 10,000 will develop into an oak.
All of the protein, carbohydrates, and protein within the acorn shell makes them beloved by wildlife. Acorns are the primary food source for more than one hundred species including black bears, deer, chipmunks, squirrels, and birds. While these animals are able to safely eat as many acorns as they desire, domestic animals like cows, horses, sheep, and goats can die from the toxic tannic acid if they eat too many. The tannins in the nut can cause the animals kidneys to fail.
Acorns as Food
Besides being loved by wildlife, acorns have also formed an important part of human diets in years past. Several ancient civilization including the Greeks regularly ate acorns. Today the practice is less common, but can still be found in both Korean and First Nation cuisine.
To eat acorns, you do need to be willing to put in some work before you can taste the fruits of your labor. Unlike other nuts, raw acorns have a bitter, astringent taste as a result of the tannins contains in the nut meat. Like domesticated animals, humans can also hurt themselves or even die if they eat too many raw acorns. Fortunately for all those wanting to give acorns a try, water and time is all that’s needed to leach out the toxic substance.
The first step to incorporating acorns into your meal plan is to go out and gather as many ripe, brown acorns as you can. You can then move on to shelling the acorns, which can be accomplished with a hammer or nutcracker. Once shelled, the nuts need to be soaked in hot boiled water to leach away the tannins. Pour the water off once it become brown, and repeat the soaking process until the water runs clear. Once they’re done soaking, the nuts can be roasted and made into coffee, flour, brittle, and added to soups and stews.
Oaks weren’t just highly regarded as a food source. They also had a role in culture. Oaks are one of humanity’s favorite trees and they have been used as a symbol by many cultures throughout history because of their association with strength and hardiness.
Among the Romans, an oak crown was the second highest honor that could be awarded to a citizen of Rome. It was only given to Roman citizens who had saved the life another citizen from the hands of an enemy through battle on a place held by the enemy on the same day the life was saved.
In Greek mythology, the oak tree was one of Zeus’ favorites. His oracle in Dodona, Epirus contained a sacred oak that priests would gather around to listen and interpret the wind rustling through the leaves that were thought to be proclamations of the god.
Much like Zeus, Thor from Norse mythology, was also strongly associated with the oak. As the god of thunder, the bark of oak trees was known to be corrugated and “astringed” around the tree. This quality meant that they were a poor conductor of lighting, and were thus the only tree that could withstand Thor’s rages.
The oak was also a central figure in the religion of the Celtic pagans of Gaul, Ireland, and Britain. The Druids believed the oak was the most sacred of trees and even took their name, “Druidae” from it. “Drus” means “an oak” and “wid” means “to know or see.” The two are a combination of oak and knowledge and taken together mean “oak wisdom.” This title was only given to the most learned men and women in the community. Many of the druids sacred rituals took place under the branches of an oak tree, and all of their ceremonies incorporated an aspect of the oak to some degree.
The Tale of the Chained Oak
Late one night, the 16th Earl of Shrewsbury, Charles Talbot, was riding home from a long evening in the local village pub when his carriage was stopped short by a frail, elderly woman standing beneath a white oak tree on the side of the rode.
“Please sir,” she begged the Earl. “Could you spare a coin for an old woman on a cold night? My son is ill and cannot work. His wife and child are starving. Anything you could spare would be enough to keep body and soul together for a little while longer.”
The Earl was not impressed by the woman’s plea. “I cannot abide the lazy and shiftless,” he said. “Take yourself back to your son, and tell him to do his own begging.” With that, he bade the coachman carry on.
As the coachman clicked to the horses, the old woman raised up. Her spine seemed to straighten and she no longer seemed quite so frail. Her hand on hips, she cursed the retreating Earl, “”For every branch on the Old Oak Tree here that falls, a member of the Earl’s family will die.”
Though the Earl heard her curse, he dismissed the threat as the empty words of a senile old woman. When he returned to his home, he kissed his wife and immediately went to sleep. He slept deeply, but was awoken by a commotion only an hour or so later. When he went to see what was the matter, he found that servants gathered in the courtyard. One was holding onto the reins of a lathered, hysterical horse. As he looked closer, he realized with a sick feeling in his gut that the horse belonged to this eldest son, who was nowhere to be seen.
Just as he was about to order a search party out to find the young man, two men from the village staggered into the courtyard with the weight of third man between them. As they gently lowered the form onto the ground, the Earl let out a cry. The third man was his missing son.
The youth was still and pale. His head had a large bloody gash across the temple, and he was not breathing. As the Earl tried to take in what he was seeing, the two men from the village explained that they had found his son lying beneath an oak tree with a large broken branch from the tree next to him. He had already been cold for some time when they found him, but he had been a kind lad and they wanted to bring him home. The odd thing about the incident, they told him, was the oak branch that struck the Earl’s son was sound. There was no sign of rot at its base, nor any reason for it to fall that they could see.
Realizing the curse had come true that very night, the Earl ordered the body taken care of and disappeared into his study for the rest of the night. When he emerged red-eyed the next morning he called for the blacksmith. “Forge chains,” he said. “As many as you have iron for. And when you are done, give them to my servants.” He looked next to his strongest servants. “Take the chains and chain each branch of the oak tree together, so they will never fall.”
With that decree, he would make sure that his surviving family would never be threatened by the tree and the old woman’s curse again. To this day, the white oak tree of Shrewsberry remains in chains.
In the Victorian Language of Flowers, an oak tree means “hospitality,” a white oak means “independence,” oak leaves mean “bravery”, and an acorn means “life or immortality.”