In this particular post, we are going to talk about the Oak tree, or more specifically the English Oak tree, and how we can use it. The Oak is one of those classic English trees, its a recognisable name, and most people will have things in their house that are made from Oak. How can it be used though? Well in this post we will go over some interesting uses, and what makes it special.
How to spot it
Before we can use it, we have to be able to identify it. There are some distinctive points about the Oak tree, to help you distinguish it from other trees. The Oak is a large tree, about 20m-40m tall when fully grown. It is also deciduous, so it loses it’s leaves in the autumn. When the Oak gets older it forms a broad crown on top, so no spike. It grows big sturdy branches underneath, so overall it forms a nice rounded tree, which is quite distinctive. The canopy it forms is actually really good at letting light through, so you generally find lots of plants growing underneath them; these can include primroses and bluebells, and other woodland floor plants. Young oaks have quite smooth and silvery bark, but as they get older, they get huge cracks and crevices throughout, this is a great way to differentiate from other trees.
The leaves are also pretty recognisable, they tend to be about 10cm long, with 4 or 5 big deep rounded lobes along the edges, these are smooth. Be aware though, that the amount of lobes can change between different forms of oak, in fact this is one big way of differentiating between them. The leaves generally don’t have much in the way of a stem, and grow in bunches, close together. They really grow around mid may. The Oak also flowers, the long yellow hanging catkins distribute pollen into the air. In the winter, the tree can be identified by bunches of rounded buds, with each bud having 3 or more scales.
Technically the Oak has fruits, although we know them as acorns. They are generally 2-2.5cm long, on fairly long stalks, and have a little cup that they sit in (called a cupule). While they grow they are a green colour, but as they ripen they become a more autumnal brown. At this point they loosen from the cupule and fall to the floor. Anyone who has walked around an oak tree knows there can be many of them. These acorns are a rich food source, so they don’t hang around long. Many wild creatures come along to feast on them, like squirrels, jays and mice. For them to germinate, they need to root quickly, before they dry out.
The Oak is generally found in the northern hemisphere, in cool regions as well as tropical climates. In England they are found in southern and central woods.
Why are They Useful?
In terms of wildlife, the Oak tree is rich in biodiversity, and arguably support more life forms than any other tree native to Britain. In the autumn the falling acorns are often eaten by badgers and deer. These acorns are technically edible, but read up on ways to prepare them first, they contain tannins, which should really be removed before eating. 10,000 years ago, humans used acorns to make flour. Also during autumn, beetles and fungi take advantage of the fallen leaves. The leaves are soft, and break down easily, forming a rich environment underneath the tree. Birds are often found nesting in the Holes that the Oak’s bark provides, bats also use some of these holes, mainly due to the rich supply of insects.
The Oak tree has forever been known as a hard and durable timber, even it’s latin name Quercus Robur means strength. So it has been used for centuries as a building material, up until the 19th century, it was the primary ship building material. Unfortunately, it takes up to 150 years before an oak is ready to be used in construction. For those who want to tan leather, the bark of the Oak contains Tannin, and has been used for this purpose since roman times. This Tannic acid is also found in it’s leaves, and is poisonous to horses, and humans, damaging the kidneys.
If you wanted to plant your own acorn, it needs to be as soon as it falls to stop it drying out, if its right, a sapling should arrive the following spring.
Best Uses for an Oak Tree
For the keen bushcrafter, here is the main uses for oak trees.
- Harvesting acorns, although these need to be processed before edible, its a great free source of food.
- Plenty of insects to eat living in the tree, they also attract squirrels, birds, badgers and deer. So depending on how brave you are, there could be some good meals to be found.
- Strong wood, things like digging sticks, tools, or anything that needs strength or impact resistance.
- The inner bark of a dead branch is a good tinder.
- The leaves do not rot very fast, and are often the last left on the forest, so could be used for shade, huts, or maybe even flooring.
- The wood is good to burn for a fire. It burns wells, and produces a heat good enough for cooking.
- The tannin found all over the tree is good for stopping bleeding, it does it by making the capillaries contract.