An oak is a tree or shrub in the genus Quercus of the beech family, Fagaceae. There are approximately 600 extant species of oaks. The common name “oak” also appears in the names of species in related genera, notably Lithocarpus (stone oaks), as well as in those of unrelated species such as Grevillea robusta (silky oaks) and the Casuarinaceae (she-oaks). The genus Quercus is native to the Northern Hemisphere, and includes deciduous and evergreen species extending from cool temperate to tropical latitudes in the Americas, Asia, Europe, and North Africa. North America contains the largest number of oak species, with approximately 90 occurring in the United States, while Mexico has 160 species of which 109 are endemic. The second greatest center of oak diversity is China, which contains approximately 100 species.
English oak is arguably the best known and loved of British native trees. It is the most common tree species in the UK, especially in southern and central British deciduous woods.
Oaks have spirally arranged leaves, with lobate margins in many species; some have serrated leaves or entire leaf with smooth margins. Many deciduous species are marcescent, not dropping dead leaves until spring. In spring, a single oak tree produces both male flowers (in the form of catkins) and small female flowers. The fruit is a nut called an acorn, borne in a cup-like structure known as a cupule; each acorn contains one seed (rarely two or three) and takes 6–18 months to mature, depending on their species. The live oaks are distinguished for being evergreen, but are not actually a distinct group and instead are dispersed across the genus.
Oak wood has a density of about 0.75 g/cm3 (0.43 oz/cu in) creating great strength and hardness. The wood is very resistant to insect and fungal attack because of its high tannin content. It also has very appealing grain markings, particularly when quartersawn. Oak planking was common on high status Viking longships in the 9th and 10th centuries. The wood was hewn from green logs, by axe and wedge, to produce radial planks, similar to quarter-sawn timber. Wide, quarter-sawn boards of oak have been prized since the Middle Ages for use in interior panelling of prestigious buildings such as the debating chamber of the House of Commons in London and in the construction of fine furniture. Oak wood, from Quercus robur and Quercus petraea, was used in Europe for the construction of ships, especially naval men of war, until the 19th century, and was the principal timber used in the construction of European timber-framed buildings. Today oak wood is still commonly used for furniture making and flooring, timber frame buildings, and for veneer production. Barrels in which wines, sherry, and spirits such as brandy, Irish whiskey, Scotch whisky and Bourbon whiskey are aged are made from European and American oak. The use of oak in wine can add many different dimensions to wine based on the type and style of the oak. Oak barrels, which may be charred before use, contribute to the colour, taste, and aroma of the contents, imparting a desirable oaky vanillin flavour to these drinks. The great dilemma for wine producers is to choose between French and American oakwoods. French oaks (Quercus robur, Q. petraea) give the wine greater refinement and are chosen for the best wines since they increase the price compared to those aged in American oak wood. American oak contributes greater texture and resistance to ageing, but produces more powerful wine bouquets. Oak wood chips are used for smoking fish, meat, cheeses, and other foods.
Mythology and Religion
In Greek mythology, the oak is the tree sacred to Zeus, king of the gods. In Zeus’s oracle in Dodona, Epirus, the sacred oak was the centerpiece of the precinct, and the priests would divine the pronouncements of the god by interpreting the rustling of the oak’s leaves.
In Baltic and Slavic mythology, the oak is the sacred tree of Latvian Pērkons, Lithuanian Perkūnas, Prussian Perkūns and Slavic Perun, the god of thunder and one of the most important deities in the Baltic and Slavic pantheons.
In Celtic polytheism, the name of the oak tree was part of the Proto-Celtic word for ‘druid’: derwo-weyd- druwid- ; however, Proto-Celtic derwo- (and dru-) can also be adjectives for ‘strong’ and ‘firm’, so some interpret that druwid- may mean ‘strong knowledge’.
As in other Indo-European faiths, Taranis, being a thunder god, was associated with the oak tree. The Indo-Europeans worshiped the oak and connected it with a thunder or lightning god; “tree” and drus may also be cognate with “Druid,” the Celtic priest to whom the oak was sacred. There has even been a study that shows that oaks are more likely to be struck by lightning than any other tree of the same height.
In Norse mythology, the oak was sacred to the thunder god, Thor. Thor’s Oak was a sacred tree of the Germanic Chatti tribe.
In the Bible, the oak tree at Shechem is the site where Jacob buries the foreign gods of his people (Gen. 35:4) . In addition, Joshua erects a stone under an oak tree as the first covenant of the Lord (Josh. 24.25–7). In Isaiah 61, the prophet refers to the Israelites as “Oaks of Righteousness.” Absalom’s long hair (2 Samuel 18:9) gets caught in an oak tree, and allows Joab to kill him.
The badnjak is central tradition in Serbian Orthodox Church Christmas celebration where young and straight oak, is ceremonially felled early on the morning of Christmas Eve.
Folklore and Legends
Tradition says that acorns are gathered by the light of the day, while the wood and leaves are harvested during the light of the moon. Pour fertilizer, water, crystals, or wine on the roots to thanks the tree for their sacrifice.
Acorns should be placed in the window to ward evil. Also acorns hung in the window from the sill are said to bring prosperity and luck to the home.
A handful of oak leaves in a bath will cleanse the water, allowing rejuvenation of body and spirit.
White oak bark teas can break up congestion. Acorns are said to treat constipation. Teas made for the oak bark in general are said to provide relief for hemorrhoids.
Oak wood fires are said to draw off illness and disease.
Nordic and other legends also say that the Oak tree is the gateway to the three worlds of the Shaman.
Wearing an oak leaf on the chest next to the heart is said to protect the wearer from lies and deceit.
Legend says that King Arthurs Round Table was made from a Giant Oak Tree.
The Druids associated the oak with the Wren. Closely aligned with the elements Earth, Water, and Spirit . The Oak is considered to be the most powerful and the most sacred to the Druids. Wizards consider this the most amplified wood to use to in spells that work with time and counter spells. Sacred to the Irish God Dagda and also to Herne, Wodin, Perkunas, Jupiter, Cybele, Rhea, Pan, Erato, Hecate, Dianus, Janus, and Brighid
Truth, steadfast knowledge, protection. Oak wands bring vitality and long life. To the ancient Celtic people, oak was the protector, provider, benevolent king of the trees. Utilized as a healing wood, and very grounding considering its strong connection to the earth. This wood helps center the mind, allowing it to focus on the task at hand and ignore distractions. Oak helps to promote both observation and intuition. Oak magic inspires bravery, presence, leadership skills, prosperity, and strength.
Oak groves were considered sacred and spell weaving in a grove assured success of that spell. In these same groves it was possible to commune with the fairy realm, for the oak is home to many a Fae.
Many warriors used oak as a protective talisman, as their armor was “padded” with oak not only for the strength of the wood, but because the wood is magickal.
Gypsy tradition holds the same truths about oak as did the Druids and include a child’s game during the autumn of catching the falling leaves of the oak; each one that is caught assures a surprise during the winter moons.
Plant an acorn during the waxing moon and it is said to draw gold to you. According to tradition, carrying an acorn on your person will bring luck and fertility to all your projects. Druids carried acorns in their pockets for luck.
An ancient Welsh belief is that good health is maintained by rubbing your hands on a piece of oak on Midsummer’s Day, while keeping silence and that the dew under oak trees is a magical beauty aid.
In Voodoo: The bark of all species of oak, but especially the white oak (Quercus alba), is believed to be spiritually efficacious in removing crossed conditions. It is said that burning white oak bark chips with Mistletoe, Rue, and Wahoo Bark will keep away evil. White oak bark is also brewed into tea by spiritual root workers to take a jinx from a client. The client is bathed by rubbing vigorously from the neck downward while prayers are said, and then allowed to air-dry, without a towel. Likewise,white oak bark chips and Mistletoe are burned together to smoke jinxed clients. This incense is also said to remove unsettled spirits or ghosts from a house or place of business.