Natural Living – Woodland Giant
by Ruth Lawrence
The mighty oak is a truly impressive tree that has populated these shores for a few thousand years. Ruth Lawrence details its life cycle through the seasons and the benefits it brings to the environment.
At the end of my garden stands a large, old oak; it has weathered around a hundred and eighty winters and now, leafless in the cold, it towers over its surroundings, spreading a perfect arch of branch and twig against the sky.
Oaks spread in the warming climate of this country about 7,000BC when woodland covered all but the poorest soils and steepest slopes. When the English Channel was formed two thousand years later, cutting off Britain from the mainland, oak was probably the second most common species after lime. The oak on the green later became the central feature of so many English villages and similarly, woodland oaks become the focus of life around them. The shade cast by their crown determines the pattern of shrub and plant growth beneath and they provide home, shelter and food to an astonishing array of creatures, birds and insects.
Spring sees their young buds and pollen rich catkins feed bullfinches, tits and thousands of caterpillars. Beetles burrow through their bark while birds nest in the branches. In winter, mice, hedgehogs and adders hibernate among the roots and the rotting leaves provide essential food for snails, slugs, earthworms and fungi. Minerals drawn up by their roots from deep in the soil are taken up into leaves, which once fallen, release the minerals into the shallower soil layers, nourishing plants beneath. Invertebrates such as the stag beetle flourish in the leaf mould beneath the tree and bats nest in old woodpecker holes or under loose bark. Fallen acorns provide food for mice, jays, badgers, deer and squirrels that help to spread the oak by burying acorns, conveniently forgetting the location of enough to provide a seeding service for the tree.
One of the widest sessile oaks in the country stands in Sussex; the Queen Elizabeth oak in Cowdray Park is reckoned to be over a thousand years old; hollow and gnarled, it sits squat with age yet still vitally alive. The sessile differs from the English oak in that its acorns are stalkless and it has a more upright trunk and straighter branches than the English oak.
Acorns are not produced until the oak is 40 years old and peak production occurs around 80-120 years of age after which growth begins to slow down and these trees even shorten with age to extend their lifespan. As acorns need to germinate quickly to avoid drying out or rotting, a successful new sapling will appear the following spring. We can help by selecting acorns and growing them in individual pots to be planted outside at two or three years of age; details of the process involved can be found on the National Forest website. It’s a wonderful way to engage children with a long term project while fostering a sense of responsibility for the descendents of local large oaks they may be familiar with.