by Steve Turner
Oak trees are so common around us that we often take them for granted. The importance of these hulking giants that provide shade and numerous resources that we depend on in everyday life are often overlooked. There is not one other species of tree that mankind has been so dependent upon as the mighty oak.
In fact, it could be argued that if not for the oak, life as we now know it might be very different. How is that you ask? First, we would have no written history or early works of literature to appreciate because until ink was made from the galls of oak leaves, it would simply fade away in a few years, never to be seen again.
Second, we might all be back in our native lands because the wood from oaks was the only wood capable of building a ship that would be strong enough, yet flexible enough to cross the oceans. The Sistine Chapel and many of the other great architectural wonders of Europe would not exist if not for their frames made of oak.
Leather coats and shoes, as well as the leather seats in the cars we drive would not exist if not for the tannins in oak bark used to turn animal hides into leather. And don’t forget wine or spirits, which are dependent on the white oak barrels in which they ferment and age before being bottled.
For over 12 millennia, man was dependent on wood for his survival. Only for the past 250 years or so did that dependence shift to oil and coal, and we can already see the end of that era coming.
The next time you meet a person named Cash or Cooper, you can smile and know that if not for oak, they might not have a name. The first was named after oak and the second for what they made out of it. Many common names have derived from trees, such as Smith or Johnson, but none more than oak; it is the most common tree name in all of western language. Even in early civilizations like the Druids and Celtics, names were derived from oak. Some will even argue that Stonehenge is built very similar to the ray cell pattern in oaks.
It is not a coincidence that if you look at a map of early civilizations, they grew out of the shade of oak trees. It did not matter if they were in Asia, Europe or the Americas, they all shared one common tree. This might be the reason that acorns were a staple of all their diets and they were dependent upon them for survival.
Oaks are very unique in their adaptability skills. It is believed that they originated out of the Mediterranean first as evergreens. Later, after the Ice Ages, they were able to fill gaps that other trees could not, and their ability to adapt and change allowed them to become the dominant species throughout the world. Oaks are the only species of trees that have both deciduous and evergreen types. They are native to every continent but Australia and grow from the northern edges of the tropics to the southern edges of the northern tundras, like a band around the middle of the Earth, a feat no other tree species can boast.
All this from a species that is neither the biggest, oldest, strongest and definitely not the fastest-growing—so why is it so dominant? How can it be called “the king of trees” when it holds none of these distinctions? Simple—because of its ability to adapt to the environment around it.
A good example is our urban forest. Look around. What are the majority of the really big trees around us? Oaks. Why? Because they have adapted to our urban environment. When developers build around trees, the beech and the cherry are the first to die. They cannot stand the disruption to their roots. Next are the ashes, elms and maples—they hang on longer but are not as strong as the oaks and are more vulnerable to wind damage when the forest is thinned. Disease and insects have also increased the decline of some of these trees, but not the oak. It continues to be the staple tree of our urban forests, able to outlast and out-compete all its competition to remain the king.
Nevertheless, the king is in trouble. Pressure from new developments, people expanding their homes in older neighborhoods with mature trees, and trees running out of room for their roots to grow due to sidewalks, driveways and buildings are all beginning to take a toll on these trees. I am seeing more and more dead or diseased oaks than I ever have before. I fear we might be looking at some serious problems if these trees are not taken care of. To read about common concerns with oaks and what can be done to help them, click here.
Steve Turner is a Certified Arborist from Arboricultural Services in Oakland County, Michigan.
Author’s note: Thanks to William Logan, author of Oak: The Frame of Civilization, from which much of the factual information for this column was obtained.