The biggest, oldest tree in the forest: White Oak
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on September 4, 2009. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions or comments.)
The old white oak trees were not in my yard, but they grew in abundance around my Gramma Ell's house. Mom and I stayed with her and my grandfather on weekends during WWII, and I collected all the acorns I could find. Gramma told me that the squirrels needed them much more than I did, but I didn't listen. Those little acorns looked like tiny people with hats on, and I had quite a collection by the time my dad came home from the war. Some time passed, and I continued collecting acorns. Sometimes I looked in my cigar box filled with acorns and wondered what I was going to do with them. My mother wondered, too. She checked that box often till I asked her what she was looking for, and she told me that worms got in acorns, and she thought my acorn box might have worms in it.
If she thought that was going to be a deterrent, she needn't have bothered. I kept right on collecting acorns. When my dad came home from the military, he opened my treasure box of acorns thinking it was filled with cigars, I guess. "What are you doing with all these acorns," he asked. "You gonna feed the squirrels this winter?" Nobody understood my acorn collection, and I am not sure I understood it either. I did eventually use them for many things, but I'll save that for the end of this story.
One of the largest and most valuable forest trees, the mighty white oak gives its wood to the finest furniture and flooring, its acorns as a food source, and its bark as a medicinal remedy. Although the tree tends to be slow growing, some of the old giants found in virgin forests have a ring count attesting to a life of 300 to 500 years. The wood of Quercus alba is close grained, hard, and tough, and that is why it came to be preferred for timber, furniture and flooring. For centuries, too, white oak was essential in ship construction, from the gun deck of the famous frigate "Constitution" to the keels of WWII minesweepers and patrol boats. North American colonists also used this native species for barrel making because the wood held liquids, including the all-important rum.
We can call this tree our own, because it is native to North America and grows in the wild from southern Canada to northern Florida and west to Minnesota and Texas. It is a medium sized to tall deciduous tree, rarely reaching a height of more than 120 feet. The light gray bark is thick and sometimes has a reddish brown shade. Alternate leaves, divided into 7 to 10 rounded lobes are bright green on the upper side, paler below. The brownish green male and female flowers appear in May and June and are borne in separate clusters called catkins. The fruits, acorns, are light brown when mature.
There is quite a history associated with the tree. The acorns were a food staple for some Native American tribes, who boiled them or crushed them in water and ate them raw. The bark has a high tannin content and is astringent. In Indian medicine it was brewed into a tea and was used to treat sinus infections. Modern herbalists continue to specify white oak as an astringent, recommending its external use for wounds, open sores, and for poison oak and insect bites. Even today, acorns are peeled and used in homeopathic potions to treat alcoholism and bad breath.
There are also some interesting legends associated with the white oak. The Celtic word for the tree is Duir, which means door, and there was a belief that the white oak was the door to other worlds. It was considered sacred to them and to other cultures because of its size and its long life. It was often called the King of the Forest for the same reasons. In some cultures, the women wore necklaces of the acorns signifying a wish for youthfulness to continue. Others believed that if a fire of oak wood was set in the home of an invalid, the fire from the oak would draw off the illness. Acorns were placed in windows to guard the house from lightning and storm. And more truth than legend is in the belief that the oak is a lightning magnet during storms because of its height.
As far as the medicinal qualities are concerned, scientists today state that white oak bark's use is valid as an external astringent, causing the capillaries and skin to constrict and thereby stopping minor bleeding. Its usefulness as an external agent that arrests more serious bleeding may be valid but has not been proved.
I knew nothing of these legends when I was collecting acorns. I loved the trees, and one in my grandmother's front yard is the first I ever climbed. The trunk and limbs were so big that tree must have been eons old, but I felt safe in it, like giant arms were cradling me up as high as I wanted to go. I hid in that tree quite often when I wanted to spy on my aunt and her date in the summer evenings. The leaves were so thick and I was so small, I never got caught spying.
Finally my cigar box was full of acorns and no worms, so one day I got my mother's red nail polish and painted a few of the acorn hats. I still thought they looked much like little people, and with her fountain pen, I drew eyes, a nose, and a mouth on several of the acorns. We won't talk about the trouble I got into because of the nail polish and her Schaeffer fountain pen, but I will tell you it was worth it, because I talked my dad into drilling holes through the acorns so that I could string them on a piece of crochet thread my Granny Ninna had and I wore that necklace proudly to town on one bright Saturday morning. I know it must have been beautiful because I got all kinds of smiles from all the folks I met in town. It might have been the same year that my mother cut a wreath out of corrugated cardboard and set me to work gluing acorns all over one side of it. The only glue available then was a sort of mucilage, it came in a small bottle that had a rubber tip. In the rubber tip there was a slit, and when you pressed on the tip, glue oozed out of the slit. I came very near to gluing myself to the wreath, but luckily my mother had something that would take that glue right off my fingers. I simply cannot remember what it was, but it sure did the job, otherwise I might still be wearing that wreath.
I would guess that I used those acorns for many other things, because I no longer have the cigar box filled with them. I still carry with me the memory of climbing that old oak tree, and not too many years ago my cousin sent me a twig from that same tree. On it was one small acorn. It touched my heart because it was her mother that I used to climb the tree to spy on. She still is a very special aunt.
All photos are from Plant Files. Thanks to Melody for the budding leaves and for the green foliage, Victorgardener for the red fall foliage, ViburnumValley for the huge old trunk of the tree, and Equilibrium for the acorns. Beautiful photos of a majestic tree.
Sources include: Magic and Medicine of Plants, The Reader's Digest Association, 1986
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