Oak is a beautifully grained wood, and one of the most popular woods for modern furniture, companies like Barn Furniture can’t get enough of it.
But there’s a lot more to Oak than just wood.
The mighty Oak tree is entwined in the symbolism and history of America & Britain and its people. Once ancient Oak forests covered the land and the majestic tree became embedded in our folklore. Timber consumption for the First World War decimated the Oak forests of both countries and bringing woodland cover in the UK down to 5%.
A slight recovery means 13% of the land is now covered in forest, and amongst that 13% are still quite a few magnificent Oak trees.
Sadly the last of the Oak trees planted in the Victorian era are now being cut down for use. Few have been planted since Victorian times and the UK now has to rely on imported Oak for furniture to create dreamy wood bedrooms & the luxurious items you find in them like these hand carved dressing tables by HomesDirect365. Oak has been the most popular wood since Medieval times, it’s strong, easy to work with, durable, has beautiful ingrained patterns when stained, and was once so easy to obtain.
Due to the shrinking number of trees the UK has appointed a ‘ tree champion’ his will be his job to oversee the planting of 11 million new trees and to conserve the remaining forests and urban trees. Its comforting to know that here in America we our forests are somewhat larger and we can still freely use this wood.
Oak Symbolism and Folklore
Its thought that the name Oak came from the ancient Druids. The Druids practiced their rituals and rites in old Oak groves and held the tree in great awe. The Gaelic word for Oak was Duir and came from the old Druid word for Oak. It meant, “men of the Oaks’. Mistletoe, the magical plant of the Druids grew on the Oak and it was believed the hand of god placed it there in a lightening strike. For the Celts the Oak was the tree of life.
Greeks, Romans, Celts and Teutonic tribes also revered the Oak and associated it with their highest god; Oak was sacred to Zeus, Jupiter, Dagda and Thor.
Ancient Kings wore crowns of Oak leaves, as did Roman commanders during victory parades. Today Oak leaves are still used to signify high military rank; a Silver Oak leaf indicates Lt. Colonel while a gold Oak leaf indicates Lt. Commander.
It is thought King Arthur’s table was made from a single cross section of a massive Oak tree and in Cromwell’s times couples were married under Oak trees.
In Folklore Oak trees are seen as strong and protectors of the virtuous, King Charles II took refuge in the branches of a great oak, and after his Restoration on May 29th,the day was celebrated as ‘Royal Oak Day’, when loyal subjects wore oak-apples, twigs and leaves.
The huge Oaks of Sherwood Forest are said to have hidden and given sanctuary Robin Hood and his men on many an occasion.
Today many environmental organisations use the Oak leaf on their logos, for example the Woodland Trust and the National Trust. Many other pubs, shops and cafes use Oak tree Symbolism in their marketing, especially Oak furniture stores.
The Old Oak Tree
The Oak is from the genus Quercus, there are between 650 – 800 different species of Oak tree. They are found all over the Northern hemisphere as far as east as Russia and west as California.
The English Oak is Quercus robur, meaning strength in Latin. The English Oak is a large deciduous tree and can grow to a huge size, up to 50 meters tall. It’s often the largest tree in the forest, so it’s not surprising the Oak has become a national symbol. Oak trees grow quickly when they are young, especially the first 4 or 5 years, but they slow down after about 120years.
Oak is a common hardwood and produces some of the most durable timber on the planet. It has been a prized timber for thousands of years, and was used in just about everything, from ship building to ornate dressing tables.
Although fast growing the Oak doesn’t actually produce timber that can be used in construction for about 150 years. So you can see why it is critical for the government to plant more Oak trees.
Oak trees produce both male and female flowers, the flowers are often called Catkins. Catkins are yellowish hanging flowers that distribute pollen into the air. The fruit is known as acorns, a small nut held in a little cup, made famous by Beatrix Potter’s Characters, especially Squirrel Nutkin.
A single tree can produce 2000 acorns, but very few get to germinate, most are eaten by mice, squirrels and birds. It takes around 40 years for an Oak tree to start producing acorns! We often use the symbolism of the Acorn to Oak to mean great things often have small and humble beginnings.
The lifespan of an Oak long; there is an Oak Tree in California called Methuselah that is thought to be a staggering 5000 years old and its location is kept a closely guarded secret. Most Oak trees live the hundreds of years and have become a symbol of strength and longevity and not surprisingly used in medicine.
Medicinal Use of the Oak Tree
It was thought Oak trees had strong medicinal properties, with the leaves, bark and acorns healing many ailments including diarrhoea, inflammation and kidney stones. The Oak tree’s bark is very astringent which helps with diarrhoea and dysentery if taken as a tea. Used externally as a medicine it can help inflammation and excema.
In some places the belief in the Oaks Curative powers was so strong they felt it would heal them if they simply walked around its trunk whishing for their affliction to be taken away by the first bird that landed on a branch. There was also a great deal of superstition around the Oak tree, for example if you carried an acorn in your pocket it would protect your form illness and pain; but only if you asked the trees permission.
Another use of the Oak tree bark was the tannin it produced. The tannin was used to tan leather from Roman times. However the tannin is rather toxic to humans and cattle.
Other uses include the extraction of a brown dye, that was made from the Oak galls and produced strong black dye from which ink was made. Oak is also used to make whiskey and brandy barrels, the oak adds a special aroma to the spirits and apparently enhances the taste.
In the last two decades or so Solid Oak furniture has become extremely popular. Oaks beautiful light colouring and natural grained patterns add class to any room in the home, not to mention the benefits of using natural wood furniture as part of your interior design.
From the time of the Druids, Oak has been used to make furniture, it was the most common tree in Britain and easy to work and by the 17th Century most furniture was being made from Oak.
Some of that the early furniture is still around today showing the durability of the Oak timber – and some of it is even mimicked from other wood such as pine, copying the stunning designs and creating styles like rustic and reclaimed wood furniture.
As incomes grew so did the demand for better crafted pieces, furniture was often used as a statement about wealth and social standing, craftsmen would carve their name and signatures into the pieces. These can be worth quite a bit today!
These days, even MDF vs Solid wood is a common debate, due to the rarity of oak wood which we have spoken about, it can even be more beneficial for us to use MDF in terms of design, but we can’t deny the beauty that which oak furniture brings to our homes.
But is Oak sustainable?
Forests the world over are in decline, not least Oak woodland and forests. As it is such a slow growing hardwood its always good to check if your furniture has come from a sustainable source. Oak from forests in eastern Russia is often illegally logged and no attempt to replant is made, which can slow down the rate in which we can get our hands on beautiful hand-carved wood furniture.
In 2015 the WWF established a Timber Scorecard where companies are graded as 0-3 trees. Threes tress being the best, it shows the company is sourcing wood from sustainable sources, using reclaimed timber or replanting substantial numbers of trees. It wouldn’t be a bad thing to check where your Oak wood comes from!
Personally I love natural wood of any kind but Oak has become a firm favourite, my bedroom furniture is Oak and gives the room a lovely clean and light feel. My Oak dressing table sits under a sky light and the sunlight reflects off the grain perfectly!
Oak is a special wood, imbued with the history and folklore of the UK, what better wood to invest in?