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

Country Life Every Week - - In The Garden -

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.

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