Gardening: The versatile tree that’s a symbol of endurance

There are a number of beautiful oak trees at Harlow Carr.
There are a number of beautiful oak trees at Harlow Carr.
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The oak needs no introduction.

It is the grandest of all trees whether or not you appreciate it in its full glory as nature intended or as a beautiful crafted piece of furniture. For me the oak is so special because of its shape in the landscape but also the time it takes to grow to its full potential.

There are around 600 species of oak in its native northern hemisphere, including deciduous and evergreen species. The English oak or common oak (Quercus robur) is native to Britain and has an average height of about 15 to 25m. It produces catkins (flowers) in spring and acorns (fruit) in autumn. It is the most common tree in southern and central Britain and throughout Europe is has been the most principal tree since prehistoric times.

The oak tree has a long history throughout Europe; it was sacred to the ancient Greeks. The Norse and Celts connected the tree with their gods of thunder, Zeus and Thor, and the oak tree has been adopted by many countries as a national symbol of strength and endurance.

The oak has had many uses over the years, mainly known for its timber, the wood has great strength and density and its high tannin content makes it resistant to insect and fungal damage. The timber was used in ship building until the 19th century and was the major material used in European timber framed houses. Today oak wood is mostly used in furniture and flooring and for barrels used to age drinks such as sherry, wines, whiskey and brandy.

Bark from the oak was used for tanning leather and the acorns were used to make a coffee drink and fed to pigs to fatten them up as they provided a rich food supply (although poisonous to other animals such as cows, sheep, horses and goats). Other species of oak have had very specific uses, for example the Japanese oak has been used to make drums, the density of the wood creating a louder and more vivid tone than other woods; the bark of the cork oak is used for wine cork/stoppers and the bark of the white oak is dried and used in medical preparations.

At RHS Garden Harlow Carr we are lucky to have many beautiful oaks including a very special chestnut leaved oak (Quercus castaneifolia “Green Spire”) which was introduced from the Caucasus and Iran in the mid-1840s. Ours is a mature specimen and very special as there are not many of its quality to be found in the UK; they are must for any plant collector who has the space for one.

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