A symbol of strength and might

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-114366054920480.jpg’, ‘Photo by Dr. Robert A. Hedeen’, ‘The broadly rounded crown of many massive, twisted and gnarled branches identified this white oak in the Blackhawk Springs Forest Preserve.’);

“Then here’s to the oak, the brave old oak,

Who stands in his pride alone!

And still flourish he, a hale green tree,

When a hundred years are gone!”

—H.F. Chorley, 1808-72

The symbol of rugged strength and endurance since man first gazed upon its noble configuration, the oak more than any other tree has been entwined with human myth, legend, and imagination. Ancient Greeks regarded the oak as the special tree of the great god Zeus, and in primitive England the religion of the Druids centered on it.

In more modern times, the virtues of oaks have been enshrined in mottoes, maxims and proverbs; a few being: “Tall oaks from little acorns grow,” “Strong as an oak,” “A heart of oak,” “Little strokes fell mighty oaks.”

Of the many different species of oaks found in the United States, the white oak (Quercus alba) best embodies what we most admire in this family of trees, and it is the official state tree of Illinois as well as Maryland.

In 1907, a Mrs. James C. Fessler of nearby Rochelle suggested that the school children of Illinois vote for a state tree. The native oak won hands down, and in 1908 Senator Andrew J. Jackson of Rockford introduced a bill in the legislature that passed and designated the native oak to be the official state tree. More than 900,000 school children voted in 1973 to change the name to white oak.

This magnificent tree may live to be 500-600 years of age and may reach a height 60-100 feet with a diameter of more than six feet. Though it does not produce acorns until it is at least 20 years old, an abundant crop of the nuts is then usually produced each year for the life of the tree.

The meat of the white oak acorn is sweet and is utilized as food by many birds and mammals. The Indians and early settlers ate the meat raw or roasted, and, when times were hard, ground the acorns into flour to make bread.

White oaks are difficult to transplant but can be readily propagated from acorns. Foresters believe squirrels are mainly responsible for the dissemination of the species when they bury acorns for winter food and cannot recall how many nuts they buried or where they interred them. Though the white oak is a slow grower, one should not be discouraged from planting acorns for future generations. Keep in mind the following as you plant a white oak acorn: your grandchildren may play in its shade, and your grandchildren’s great grandchildren may have a picnic beneath the same tree.

The wood of the white oak is something special, and is used for a variety of purposes . It is the most durable of all of the oaks, requiring a force of 4,425 pounds of pressure/square inch to shear it. In earlier days, many of the ships that sailed the high seas were made of white oak. Today, it is especially useful in making a variety of goods, including whiskey barrels, furniture, railroad ties, cabinet work and tool handles.

As the grain is straight and the fibers are non-adhering, the wood is easily split into long-burning firewood or slender laths that may be woven into a variety of useful objects. Unfortunately, the art of weaving white oak laths is vanishing from our society. A few old-timers still produce exquisite baskets as well as chair bottoms, and other useful items. For years, I owned a backpacking basket made of white oak, and it served me well.

Perhaps the most famous white oak in the United States was the Wye oak growing in Talbot County, Maryland. This tree was more than 95 feet in height with a circumference of 28 feet. A few years ago, however, this outstanding botanical specimen died at an estimated age of 500 years. In Wilmette, Ill., however, there is a huge, healthy white oak that dendrochronological (the study of tree growth rings) evidence shows it to be more than 300 years of age.

In my own case, I have a special reason for having affection for the white oak. Some years ago when I lived in Cook County, I collected a rare species of mosquito from a rot cavity in a white oak containing water. This mosquito previously had not been reported north of the Mason-Dixon line, and it was later proven to be an effective transmitter of the La Crosse virus that causes a type of encephalitis in man.

When I encounter a white oak in my wanderings around the Rock River Valley, I always look at it with respect. It has many qualities I wish I had.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960 to 1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

From the March 29-April 4, 2006, issue

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