The arborist was following me around the property. It had been a hard winter with several damaged trees and a lot of large limbs downed. Rather than use the chainsaw to clean up the mess, I preferred to bring in a professional. He knew the trees better than I did, and could tell me what should be trimmed and what should be totally removed to maintain the integrity of the other trees.
He stopped beside a majestic white oak tree and gazed at it with reverence.
“The mighty oak,” he proclaimed. “The workhorse of the forest.”
I found his comment unusual and asked “What do you mean?”
“It’s the strongest, most resilient tree of all the trees in the forest,” he said. “It’s a long-living hardwood … uninfected like the ash tree and so many others. This is the tree that will stand the test of time.”
“It’s a messy tree for sure,” he added. “The last tree to show its greenery in the spring, and the last tree to drop its leaves in the fall … but a good solid tree.”
He walked to the oak and fondly patted the trunk as if it were a cherished pet.
“Hmm…” I replied. “I have to agree with the messy part. I know when August arrives — it’s the beginning of acorns dropping.”
“Keep the oak,” he advised me. “Keep any oak seedlings you have. They’ll be here making messes long after the other trees die. You may lose a few of the smaller branches in bad weather, but overall, it’s pretty solid.”
I was impressed with his comments. I have always loved the oak, the uniquely-shaped leaves and the masses of acorns that noisily fall. I loved the hand-crafted furniture in my home that was made out of solid oak wood. There was even a store in town that boasted wood furniture made exclusively from the mighty oak.
Myths And Folklore Surrounding Oak Trees
And then there are the myths. Understandable, since some oak species can live up to a thousand years! In fact, to the Germanic mythological thunder god, Thor (whose symbolic hammer was probably made of oak) the oak tree was sacred.
It was also a sacred tree to scores of other powerful gods through the centuries: Zeus, Jupiter, Dagda, and Perun — all gods with power over rain, thunder, and lightning. It’s linked to the world tree of Norse mythology.
Perhaps it’s this affinity to these gods that makes the oak tree more susceptible to lightning strikes. Oak groves were popular worship sites for various Pagan rituals, particularly those practiced by Druids.
Growing Oak Trees
The arborist was right. My lovely oak tree — which was already quite a bit older than me, would outlive me in more ways than one. But, what type of oak tree was it? I did some research and discovered there are over 800 species of oak trees around the world, some of which are considered to be evergreens.
My oak tree is a white oak, Quercus alba. It’s perhaps the most common oak tree in my growing area which extends through the eastern United States into Ontario and Quebec. It’s a slow-growing tree that will grow to about 150 feet. Considering it’s about 50 feet tall already, it’s probably about 35 years old. All being well (and without Thor’s lightning strikes wreaking havoc) our hearty oak should be around for much longer than I will since white oak trees can live a couple hundred years.
My oak tree gives plenty of shade and does well in the hard-packed soil and drought conditions often endured in the summer months. This resilient member of the oak tree family has deep roots, making it ideal for all kinds of soil and growing conditions.
The roots spread in multiple directions, so thankfully, my tree is nowhere near the well or the septic system. That said, it is close to the garden patch and its spindly, spidery trail of roots can sometimes entangle my veggies, strangling their roots and stunting their growth. I solved that problem by raising the garden, and lining the raised beds to prevent weeds and tree roots from jutting through to take over my soil.
Related Post: Fast Growing Shade Trees For Your Homestead
A tall tree in its prime, it isn’t named white oak for the color of its bark — which is usually a light gray. It is my understanding the name white oak actually derives from the finished wood which is a very light color, almost white. The amazing thing I’ve noticed about my white oak, and I understand it’s typical of all white oaks, is the massively wide expanse of branch extensions.
The higher up the tree, the further sideways the branches extend. It’s a great shade tree so I have to trim some of the branches to allow the sun through to my veggies. The arborist assured me trimming wouldn’t harm the tree, and in many cases, a little trim here and there is a good thing for the tree’s overall health.
Uses For White Oak Wood
This is a grand oak to use for furniture, its hardwood is much sought after, and, since the wood is waterproof (unlike some of its oak cousins) it makes good rain barrels, too. It’s also the wood of choice for a number of musical instruments — like banjos — since white oak wood has a lovely mellow timbre with resonance and power. More so than the traditionally-used maple wood.
Medicinal Uses For White Oak
There are other uses for white oak than just the wood. The bark is often used in medicines. In a tea, white oak bark is an effective treatment for arthritis, diarrhea, colds, fever, cough, and bronchitis. White oak bark tea also stimulates appetite and it can improve digestion.
In a compress, it can be applied directly to the skin or added to a bath to treat pain and swelling, as well as to treat itchy red skin caused by exposure to extreme cold. It’s the tannins in white oak bark that make it an effective treatment to these ailments.
Other Oak Tree Varieties
The white oak is my pride and joy, but what other types of oaks are there? There’s bur oak, black oak, cherry bark oak, chestnut oak, laurel oak, and live oak.
Bur Oak Trees
Bur oaks are part of the same oak species as the white oak. Also known as mossycup oak or mossycup white oak (a name derived from the fuzzy fringe on the nut cap) bur oaks are one of the most drought-resistant oaks — which is a good thing because our summers have become increasingly dry.
This oak is a shrubbier version in the oak tree family with a massive trunk (up to 10 feet in diameter) and it can grow up to 100 feet tall. The bur oak grows fast. Its lifespan is usually about 200 years, but it may live up to 400. With deeply lobed leaves and the largest acorns found on North American oak trees, this hearty oak is an important source of food for wildlife.
Related Post: Eating Acorns: From Foraging To Cooking & Recipes
Bears, deer, porcupine, and even cattle love the large acorns which grow in heavy crops every few years. Considering the longer periods of drought, one interesting fact about bur oaks is they can survive forest fires dues to their very thick bark.
Black Oak Trees
Then there is the black oak tree — so named because its bark is almost black. The black oak also tolerates poor soils and can grow to over 100 feet tall. It’s another eastern North American oak tree.
Cherry Bark Oak Trees
Another fast-growing, tall oak is the cherry bark oak which is common in the southern United States.
Chestnut Oak Trees
Another eastern North American oak tree is the chestnut oak. The gray-scaled acorn caps with their red tips probably suggest the reason for calling this a chestnut oak.
Laurel Oak Trees
The laurel oak is a bit of an anomaly as it doesn’t have the typically oak-shaped leaves. Much like its namesake, laurel oak leaves are really narrow blades. It’s a large tree with dark brown to black acorns.
Live Oak Trees
The live oak is an evergreen of the South. The typical, iconic tree image with huge trees on sandy soils and robes of Spanish moss-draped over them, are actually live oaks. It’s a large tree and can live for hundreds of years. The acorns are black like the laurel oak, but more oblong.
With its hearty sustainable qualities, its beneficial attributes to the natural world around it, and a dignified beauty, it’s small wonder the mighty oak is so loved around the world. I may not have a grove of oak trees to worship like a druid (or the power of gods to invoke bolts of lightning!) but my strong white oak tree and a scattering of bur oaks still in their infancy, do give me a sense of stability knowing something so strong and noble will stand proud for generations after I am gone.
And, while I’m still here, I shall endure the perpetual ping of acorns and the autumn dumping of leaves — just in time for the snow to cover the messy oak carpet. Yes. It is a messy tree, but it’s also my mighty oak.
Trisha Faye says
I loved reading this. I adore trees. We have two oaks – still in their infancy. We planted a Live Oak 5-6 years ago, and a Shumard Oak two years ago. There’s a few babies sprouting in the back yard, barely knee high, compliments of a passing thru squirrel probably.
I always enjoy reading what you have to share with us!
Emily-Jane Hills Orford says
The oak tree has always been my favorite tree – that and the sugar maple.