Tree of the Week - English oak (Quercus robur)

Wednesday 5 October 2011

What it is

Quercus robur (meaning oak of strength and hard timber) is a member of the white oak family, and is also known as the pedunculate oak. There are variations of the tree in Italy, southeast Europe, Asia Minor and the Caucasus, but many of these are treated as a different species

Go for green

The English Oak is particularly important to a huge number of insects and other wildlife. Because of the acorns that it grows, it forms a valuable source of dinner for several small mammals and birds. Planted for forestry, English Oak produces long-lasting and durable heartwood, much in demand for interior and furniture work.

Oak through the ages

Planted for forestry, English Oak produces long-lasting and durable heartwood, much in demand for interior and furniture work.


Depending on origin, the heartwood varies from light tan to biscuit or deep brown, with distinct bands of earlywood and latewood. The grain is usually straight but irregular or cross grain can occur. The texture is coarse, and rays and growth rings show an attractive figure (silver grain) when quartersawn. Fungal attack in the growing tree results in brown oak.


The wood is fairly hard, heavy and dense with high crushing and bending strength, low stiffness and resistance to shock loads. It is very good for steam-bending. It is fairly hard to work with hand tools, with a moderate to severe blunting effect. Pre-boring is advised for nailing and screwing, and a reduced planing angle on irregular or cross-grained stock. It turns satisfactorily, is good for painting, sanding, staining and varnishing, and will take a high polish. The tannin content may also corrode ferrous metals in certain circumstances.


The heartwood is durable and highly resistant to preservatives. The sapwood is permeable, and can therefore be vulnerable to both powderpost and common furniture beetles.

Oaks of note

1. The oldest oak tree on record lives in Bulgaria, and is 1,650 years young!

2. The largest on record is known as the Seven Sisters Oak. It measures 11.27 meters (37 feet and 2 inches) in circumference with a crown spread of 45.72 meters (150 feet). It is estimated that it is also more than 1,000 years old

The symbolism of oak

According to Wikipedia, in England, the English oak has assumed the status of a national emblem. This has its origins in the oak tree at Boscobel House, where the future King Charles II hid from his Parliamentarian pursuers in 1650 during the English Civil War; the tree has since been known as the Royal Oak. This event was celebrated nationally on 29 May as Oak Apple Day, which is continued to this day in some communities.

Did you also know that ‘The Royal Oak’ is the third most popular pub name in Britain and has been the name of eight major Royal Navy warships. The oak is the most common woodland tree in England; an oak tree has been depicted on the reverse of the pound coin (the 1987 issue) and a sprig of oak leaves and acorns is the emblem of the National Trust.


In folklore, it has been noted that the Celts, and especially the Druids, worshipped the oak tree; this was because the tree was a powerful sign of midsummer, being one of the Sacred Three; oak, ash and hawthorn.

Acorns were particularly considered to be able to attract prosperity (provided they were gathered by day) and the leaves, worn next to the heart, were regarded as a protection against deception (provided they were gathered by night.)

Images, from top to bottom:

1. Oak grain

2. The flowers and leaves of the oak tree provide food for various small mammals and birds

3. A pollard oak breakfast table circa 1820, with an unconventional foot design and striking finish

4. An oak table dating from the reign of Charles I

5. Elizabethan oak court-cupboard