The Mighty and Noble Oak
“Storms make trees take deeper roots.” – Dolly Parton
Twenty-twenty is almost over and I can honestly say we have all grown deeper roots this year. The symbolism of trees and their significance to us is as ancient as our belief systems. Of all of them, oaks are probably the most revered and valued. They symbolize strength, truth, protection, nobility, knowledge, and resistance. They were even known to be used in magic wands; Merlin’s wand was rumored to be made from English Oak.
There are over 500 species of oaks on the blue marble we call home. They can be found on almost every continent. They can withstand all types of growing conditions, from saturated soil and cool conditions to arid, upland, and rocky outcroppings. Some grow with a netting of roots close to the surface of the ground while others have deep tap roots. Many grow to be well over 1,000 years old.
Oaks are known as keystone species. This means they are a crucial part of the ecosystem in which they reside, as well as the local food-web. The food-web is the natural interconnection of food chains. Oaks fit in this web as a food source for wildlife through their nuts and their leaves. Oak leaves are among the top food resources for caterpillars, which in turn feed numerous birds and their families. The nuts they produce feed animals like squirrels, chipmunks, deer, turkeys, grouse, pheasant, and some ducks, among other wildlife.
Oaks can be divided into two main groups, the red and the white. The red oaks have pointed lobes on their leaves, while the white oaks have rounded lobes. We have both types native to our region. Oaks can also be distinguished from one another based on their acorns. Some have large nuts, some have small nuts, but all have acorn cups. The cup is the part of the acorn the nut sits within; they can be saucer shaped, goblet shaped, smaller than the acorn, larger than the acorn, and some can even be hairy.
One of my favorite oaks is the willow oak. They are unique in that their leaves resemble those of the willow tree. They have small acorns with shallow, saucer-like cups. The have a grand, stately appearance in the landscape, and love being near a water body such as a pond or stream. They are used often as street trees in urban landscapes because they are tough and tolerant.
The scarlet oak is another wonderful oak to have in your yard, especially if you live in an upland condition, and have the room for this noble tree to spread its branches. Its leaves turn a vibrant red in the fall. The acorn cups are bowl shaped and the bark is finely grooved.
The swamp white oak is another common tree around consistently wet areas. The leaves have rounded lobes and are deeply cut. The acorn cups are bowl shaped but this particular oak has one very unique feature: the acorn stalks are much longer then the leaf stalks. No other oaks display this. The stalk is the where the acorn or leaf is attached to the branch.
I remember when someone posed the question, what’s the easiest thing a person can do to combat climate change? My answer was to plant a tree. I’d like to amend that to plant an oak tree. The number of lives impacted by a single oak tree is immeasurable; no wonder the oak is held in such high regard.
Stay safe and let’s garden together.##
Eric W. Wahl is a landscape architect, artist, and President of the Delaware Native Plant Society.