The nature of things
Two evergreen oaks
HE mature holm oak is a stately thing, forming a big, round-headed tree, casting deep shade under its dense canopy. You’re most likely to see them in estate parks and churchyards in southern Britain or lining thoroughfares in established coastal resorts, where they’re valued for making sturdy windbreaks, tolerant of bracing sea air. However, that need not be the sum of their usefulness; holm oak (Quercus ilex, pictured, top left) also makes excellent evergreen topiary and hedging, rapidly forming a stout, permanent screen in most soil types.
The young leaves are mildly spiny along their edges, which gave rise to the popular name of holly oak and, although soft new foliage emerges through the growing season in hues of light green or copper, a sombre, dark green prevails in maturity. Then, it takes a gust of wind to lift the dark veil, revealing downy, silvery undersides that shimmer like the branches of an olive. Hailing from the Mediterranean, holm oaks have been grown here since Tudor times. In their native lands, the wood has long been prized for furniture, tool handles, wheel-making and charcoal.
TIts relative, Quercus suber,(pictured, top right) also from the Mediterranean, is rarer over here. Its leaves are similar, but held in a more open crown; its trunk develops, over time, a fissured, soft bark that provides the remarkable lightweight, buoyant, heat- and water-resistant material that is cork. KBH
Illustration by Bill Donohoe