As strong as an oak
Mark Griffiths marvels at the majestic beauty and longevity of our stately oak trees, which have brought Britain safety, prosperity and power
AT the last night of the Proms on Saturday—and, let us hope, at all others to come—the Royal Albert Hall resounded to Rule, Britannia!—this year, quite possibly sung with as much feeling as at any time since 1740, when Thomas Arne set James Thomson’s words to music. The third verse refers to the tree whose nature symbolises Britannia’s invulnerability and majesty and whose timber brings her safety, prosperity and power:
Still more majestic shalt thou rise,
More dreadful, from each foreign stroke; As the loud blast that tears the skies,
Serves but to root thy native oak. Of course, this tree needs, and deserves, to be in the singular. Although he knew his botany, Thomson was eager to extol a common British identity and so he conflated our two native oak species. In any case, they are alike, can be mistaken for each other, seen as one, unless you look for certain details.
In Quercus petraea, the leaf stalks are distinct and clearly visible. The acorns sit directly on the twigs, a feature that gave rise to its commonest English name, sessile oak (sessile is botanese for stalk-less). Unless pollarded or decapitated by the elements, it makes a towering tree of stately elegance, its trunk clear and column-like before fanning into long ascending limbs. In the wild, this species is most frequent in the West and North, where it favours thin, usually acid soils, often on higher ground—hence petraea, ‘of rocky places’. Its predominance in the Celtic homelands has earned it the aliases Welsh, Cornish and Irish oak.
Durmast oak, its second most common English name, was first attested in the 18th century. Its derivation is obscure. The theory most often repeated is that it’s a misreading of ‘dun mast’, supposedly a reference to the dun—that is, brown—acorns. The ‘mast’ part seems right, but I’ve a suspicion that its ‘dur’ prefix may relate to this tree’s Celtic roots: oak is derw, derwen and dâr in Welsh, derowen in Cornish and dair in Irish.
In Quercus robur, the leaf stalks are very short and usually obscured by the blades (the flat, leafy tissue), which continue almost to the base. The acorns are carried on slender stalks, typically, one to three apiece, hence this species’s second most common English name, pedunculate oak (a peduncle is a separate stalk bearing flowers and fruit).
This tree is more of a heavyweight than Q. petraea—massive of trunk, often low-branching, limbs spreading and writhing to form its characteristic broad and bulgy crown, which hovers in the summer sky like an emerald cumulonimbus. Over its very long life, accidents such as wind damage, lightning strikes and our harvesting of its timber may turn these traits into gargantuan stoutness and tentacular tortuosity.
After centuries of planting, this oak can be found throughout the British Isles. By nature, however, it prefers heavier soils and is more often a denizen of lowland. As such, its principal, indeed, royal seat is in England and that fact, among a hoard of others, explains its most familiar name: the English oak.