The Mighty Oak
Your favorite shade tree has a big family with a long history!
Many people think of oak as a famously “English” thing, as in “tough ol’ English Oak” — but the largest concentration of oak species is actually in Mexico (160 species) followed by China (about 100 species). There are only about 90 species of oak in North America outside of Mexico, but about 600 in the entire world. This symbol of strength and endurance has been proudly associated with any number of countries, cities, colleges, and organizations — from ancient Germanic tribes to modern day USA, which adopted it as the National Tree in 2004.
It’s actually a bit difficult for scientists to determine exactly how many species of oak there are, because oaks tend to stretch the definition of the term “species”. All oaks are grouped in the genus Quercus, but many readily hybridize in nature, seeming to have comparatively little preference for their own pollen grains over that of a related neighboring oak. To make matters worse, while only about 1 in 10,000 acorns ever become an actual tree, fully grown hybrids produce their own fertile acorns! This is unlike most other hybrids, such as mules, which cannot produce offspring.
Due to their high tannin content, acorns are toxic to domestic cattle, horses, sheep, and goats — but humans can remove the tannin and then use them for tea or grind them into flour. Surprisingly, domestic pigs can handle the tannin and can consume fairly large quantities of acorns. However, it is the tannin in the tree that makes it resistant to decay by insects and fungi, giving oak its tough, enduring nature. The wood is also very hard and dense, and Japanese oak is used to make Yamaha drums, because its especially high density produces a brighter, louder tone. 🙂
Due to the tannins mentioned above, oak bark is often used for tanning leather hides — but the bark of cork oak in the Mediterranean region supplies most of the world with wine corks! However, it is the wood beneath the bark that is used most often. Since ancient times, this tough ol’ wood has been employed in shipbuilding, and today it is still used to make agricultural tools in certain places like India. Oak grain is thought to be so naturally beautiful that its paneling can be found in even some of the most important government meeting rooms, and much fine furniture is made of enduring, lovely oak wood as well.
Oak wood has appeal beyond its density, its tannin, and its beautiful grain. It imparts a nice flavor to wine and is used to make barrels to store wine, whiskey, brandy, and other alcohols while they age. It can also be burned and used for smoking fish, meat, and even cheeses!
What a versatile wood, AND a beautiful tree! 😀
More information on The Mighty Oak:
Oak – Wikipedia
List of Individual Oak Trees!
Oak: Encyclopedia of Life
List of Oak tree species & hybrids
English Oak on The Wood Database
Native Oaks of North America
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