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Oak Tree - Genus: Quercus - An article from "The Trees Of Old England" by Leo H.Grindon
Oak Tree - Genus: Quercus by Leo Hartley Grindon; Previously a Lecturer on Botany at the Royal School of Medicine, Manchester. Author of "Life: its Nature, Varieties, and Phenomena;" "British and Garden Botany;" " The Little Things of Nature;" "Echoes in Plant and Flower Life," and others.
Oak Tree - Genus: Quercus - A Sketch of the aspects, associations and uses of Oak Tree - Genus: Quercus which constitute the forests and give effect to the scenery of Great Britain.
The Oak Tree - Genus: Quercus
Foremost among British trees, alike in grandeur, utility, length of life, and amplitude of association, stands the Oak, that famous production which even in the days of Homer was a time-honoured proverb for strength and endurance. In England this noble tree is found under many different forms; the contour, the endurance of the foliage, the figure of the leaf and acorn, varying considerably more than the unobservant of minute particulars would ever suppose. All the varieties are resolvable, however, into two principal ones, and these two are so nearly connected by intermediates, that it is probable the oak of Old England is after all very like a human face presented under innumerable profiles and complexions, but always and everywhere the same good old-fashioned combination of features that was possessed in the beginning. The two principal forms are the wavy-leaved oak and the flat-leaved, called respectively by men of science, Quercus pedunculata and Quercus sessiliflora. The former is distinguished by its tortuous branches, and the irregular disposition of the foliage, every leaf lying in a different plane, and the whole presenting an aspect of great massiveness. Leaf-stalk there is scarcely any; the acorns, on the other hand, are borne upon peduncles which often reach several inches in length. Individually, the leaves, as expressed in the name, have a strong tendency to be wavy in their surface and outline. The flat-leaved oak differs in its compact form, and strong disposition to round- ness; the branches are more horizontal, the leaves lie in parallel planes, and individually are flat, and with rather long stalks. In spring we may further observe that the leaf-buds are larger than in the peduncidata, and in autumn that the acorns are shorter and broader, and that they are almost or totally destitute of peduncles; if present, the peduncles are stout, not slim and delicate as in the wavy-leaved. These are distinctions very easily made out. To trace them is at once an agreeable and instructive occupation for half an hour, when we go into the country for a day's enjoyment. Nor does it end in the simple discrimination of two different things; for the wavy-leaved oak has the reputation of being a more excellent tree than the other, while the flat-leaved is considered better adapted to excite ideas of the picturesque. It may be added, that both in Britain and upon the Con- tinent, the wavy -leaved oak, Quercus pedunculata, is generally found upon better soil than the sessili- flora, circumstances which may have something to do with its higher reputation for quality. In France the chene-a-grappes, as the former is there called, is always planted in preference to the chene-rouvre, if the soil be sufficiently good. In the delightful forest of Meudon, near Paris; throughout the whole of the extensive forest of Fontainebleau, and in the Bois de Boulogne, the latter kind, however, or Quercus sessiliflora, is the only form under which the oak is to be met with. When both forms are planted together, provided the soil be good, the sfissiliflora outgrows the pedunculata. Both are called by many different names: Quercus pedunculata is often distinguished as the true British oak, the white oak, the female oak, the valley oak, and the early oak the last name alluding to the rather earlier development of the foliage: while the sessiliflora is called the chesnut oak, the male oak, the red oak, and the hard oak; occasionally also the winter oak, from its disposition to retain the dead leaves far on into the winter; also, with some, the hill oak, from its being more frequently found in upland localities than its competitor. A glorious spectacle is that of the oak in the month of April, when its amber-tinted buds stud the tree like so many jewels. They do not open rapidly, like those of the sycamore or the horse-chesnut. From first to last, the life of the oak seems characterised by placidity. It lives so long that it can afford to be leisurely in all its movements, and at every season alike expresses dignity and calmness. In a little while, when the young leaves are half-expanded, come the flowers, though not such flowers as we use for bouquets; nature has other ways of fashioning flowers than after the model of the rose or lily. To note these diverse ways is one of the great rewards and charms of Botany, which does not mean calling plants by Latin names, but exploring the nature of their various parts, discovering how exquisitely they are fitted for their several uses and destinies, comparing one form of leaf or flower with another, and discerning step by step that nature is all one song, but coming forth in countless tones, or rather like an oratorio, where we never have two parts exactly alike, yet everywhere repetition and reverberation to the ear that knows how to listen. Flowers are not necessarily sumptuous and fragrant and brilliant- hued in order to be flowers. The idea of a flower implies simply a certain apparatus for the produc- tion of seed, and that this be large or small is of no more importance than that the heavenly teachings should be printed in one kind of type or another. It is worthy of note also that the timber-trees of the north are remarkable, as a rule, for the smallness and the simplicity of their flowers. The short-lived vegetation of the field and garden seems decked with its sweet flower-brightness in compensation. Where our hearts are to be lifted up in admiration of strength and majesty, gaiety and showy tints can be dispensed with.
The flowers of the oak, as said above, make their appearance cotemporaneously with the young leaves, and under two different forms. First, there are innumerable yellowish tufts and fringes depending from near the extremities of the twigs; among them are the tips of the rudiments of the future acorns, scarcely larger than the head of a pin, and of a deep red colour. The oak is thus one of the trees in which the distinction of sex is strongly marked. All plants express, in some way or other, the omnipresence in organic nature of masculine and feminine. But it is not always palpable to the eye. Some philosophers consider that where it is most plainly set forth, we have a nearer step to- wards perfection of structure; and on this ground they regard the oak and its congeners as more exalted in the scale of vegetable life even than apple-trees. Acorns would never be developed from the rudiments in question, were the tasseled fringes not to cooperate, and contrariwise the tasseled fringes are incapable of yielding acorns. Summer aids the development; then comes calm October, and the embossed cups, round as a bubble upon the water, holding them up awhile, as a young mother holds up her child, cast them to the earth in kindly largess. But although the acorns may sprout where they fall, none grow to be even saplings beneath the shade of the parent. Only those that get carried away from it become oaks. And this planting has been observed to be largely effected through, the instrumentality of squirrels. So beautifully are the necessities of the various realms of nature harmonized one to the other. The little quadruped fulfils an instinct proper and needful to its own existence, and in so doing contributes to the perpetuation of the tree.
Eepresentatively that is, as viewed by the light of poetry, which means, in turn, by the keenest in- sight of the mind that, penetrating below the surface, and beholding the centres of things, brings out their highest value, that is to say, their significance, re- presentatively, the oak is strength, endurance, and dignity, holding the same place among trees that the lion does among animals, and the eagle among birds. Hence we find it many times referred to in Scripture, and always in connection with what is understood to be permanent and enduring; as when the tables of the law are described as having been set up against an oak, to signify that the law was given to last for ever. It would be a very trifling piece of information for the dignity of Scripture to communicate, if it were no more than the bare physical fact that the tables were placed against an oak. Scripture always means something. It is not a book of words, but of ideas, speaking for all time; which kind of language results from the facts that it records being not simply literal but representative. It is literally true, without doubt, that the tables were placed against an oak; it is no less true that an oak was chosen because of its symbolic meaning for all ages. The poetical character of the oak is acknowledged again in the time-honoured allusion to the defenders of our country as "hearts-of-oak." No one disputes the fact that our sailors are made of this capital material; yet how absurd the state- ment if taken in any other light than that of poetry! This shows that although much which holds the form and outward shape of poetry may be unmeaning and foolish, the inmost and true spirit finds a response in universal human nature, and that its genuine language will ever bear interpreting.
The oak is not only a tree, it is a garden and a country; for living things innumerable find their homes and security, either among the branches or upon some portion of the surface. Birds, insects, epiphytic plants, are identified with the natural history of the oak to the number probably of several hundreds; so that to study the inmates of an oak- tree, is like exploring the streets and squares of a populous town, and taking a census of the occupa- tions of the inhabitants. There is no special or particular bird found only or chiefly amid the foliage, nor indeed are birds ordinarily found in definite kinds of trees; only now and then, as in the case of the crossbill and the fir, do we find any direct consociation. For trees are to birds what the ocean is to the nations of earth, free to the visits of all in turn, and witnessing every day new arrivals and new departures. The oak is emphatically of this nature, and the absence of any particular visitant renders the grand old hospitality of the oak to the feathered tribes even more noticeable perhaps than did any particular species of bird show preference for it. In the welcome it extends to them, we see over again why the oak should be the king of trees, for herein it corresponds with the princes and patricians of human nature, who are the men that possess hospitable minds, giving kindly hearing to all ideas, and a welcome to everything that may hold within it the soul and seed of truth. The ideas and speculations, the theories and hypotheses, which float "about the atmosphere of human intellectual life, are to the little world of man just what the birds are to the physical atmosphere; the wise man gives a courteous ear to all, and leaves it to fools to reject and condemn before they have listened. Nothing is ever got by shutting one's self up in a creed. It is better to have an excess of faith than too little. The Evil One likes no intrenchment better than that which he finds in the incredulities of pride and ignorance.
Insects are to the oak a supplement so vast, that were the tree to be blotted out, the entomologist would weep. Those lovely creatures that sail on painted pinions, the butterflies, in many kinds, beetles, and a multitude of little creeping things that none but the enthusiast is aware of, flock to it, and abide or lodge upon it; and when an oak-tree is felled, it is an earthquake to them. To the casual observer this wonderful insect-population is of necessity not obvious. But no one can help noticing the certificate and result of its presence. We have it in the productions termed oak-apples; also in galls, and in the yellowish rusty spangles which in autumn crowd the under-surfaces of the leaves, and look like the "fairies' money" of a fern. Oak-apples, the most conspicuous and familiar of these adventitious productions, have nothing in them, as was once supposed, of the nature of fruit. They receive their name simply from the rude resemblance they bear in colour and figure to the juicy produce of the orchard, and essentially are nothing more than masses of extravasated sap, dried and consolidated by exposure to the atmosphere. They originate in the instinctive actions of an insect, which punctures the bark or skin, usually selecting a bud, and deposits her eggs in the wound; in consequence of this, some abnormal vital action is set up, which causes the sap that flows towards the wounded part to ooze out, and in due time to form a globular lump, the eggs lying snug in the interior. Soon after midsummer the eggs are hatched, and upon tearing open one of the so-called apples, the white grubs may be discerned. Eventually they push their way to the exterior, become winged creatures, and fly away. So wonderful are the " homes made without hands! "A large volume might be written upon such abodes of creatures. The ingenuities which man has brought to bear on his dwellings have all been anticipated by races of beings to whom art and science are unknown. It is grand to contemplate columns and Gothic arches, porticos, and noble windows, to say nothing of the count- less contrivances intended to promote domestic convenience and comfort; but nowhere is the splendid instinct of self-protection, which in man flowers forth in its highest form in architecture, more exquisitely displayed than in the methods adopted by insects to secure the same important end. It has, moreover, the special wonder about it, of being exercised on such indifferent, and as it would seem at first sight, such insufficient materials. Marble and granite, metal and timber, are their own assurance of solidity and durableness; the insect works on substances than which there are none in nature more soft and tender.
The galls are of precisely similar origin, dating from the operation of a minute insect allied to that which lays the foundation of the oak-apple. When young, they often resemble cherries, and in the East, from this circumstance, have been supposed to be the famous "apples of Sodom," fair to behold, but turning on the lips to dust and ashes. Later and more scientific inquiry has proved this to be an error, but it is an error perfectly natural to have been fallen into, since the appearance is tempting, and the galls produced in Palestine and the adjacent countries are often large and brightly-coloured. It is from Smyrna that most of the galls used in the manufacture of ink are imported. Our English ones would answer the same purpose, but not so well, nor are they produced in England in sufficient quantity to make it worth while to collect them. It would be matter of regret if they were so produced, because the tree must needs suffer from the loss of so much sap as is needed to form them; and in England, though we have plenty of oaks, we require them for other purposes. One kind of oak-gall is produced in clusters that resemble a thin bunch of red currants; another is like a little brown artichoke, being formed from a leaf-bud which has had its legitimate growth spoiled by the operation of the insect, and opens it tiny leaves prematurely, and as simple brown scales. Least of all, but quite as pretty as the oak-apple itself, are the "oak-spangles".' strewed on the under-surface of the leaves, and which bear, as just now said, no distant likeness to the circular mounds of fructification of such ferns as the common golden-dotted polypody of the hedgebanks. So strange is the similitude, that a solitary oak-leaf, jewelled by these beautiful little growths, and shown to an inexperienced observer, might and would be taken for a fern-frond! But a near view at once discloses the difference. While the spangle of the fern consists of a heap of minute golden-coloured boxes, every box bursting when mature, and discharging innumerable atoms of "fernseed," the spangle of the oak-leaf is a crowd of greenish or reddish hairs, and seems as if cut out of a piece of velvet that might have been worn by Titania. It consists, of the same kind of substance as the oak-apple, but disposed in a different form, the insect which gave the impulse being a different one. Not the least extraordinary fact in this strange history is, that out of the same material, the simple sap of the tree, should arise things so unlike as the oak-apple and the oak-spangle, and that the difference should be referable to the diverse influence of a couple of flies!
But it is in the plants which take up their residence on the oak that we see its most beautiful occupants. First, there is that glorious old ever- green the ivy, which, beginning its career like a centipede, creeps slowly and tenderly up the surface, making sure of its wiry footing at every step, and decks the massive trunk with sweet wandering and zigzag sprays of green, variegated, if they get light enough, with unaccustomed hues. While young, and until quite among the branches, the leaves are angular. There are no flowers, and perhaps none ever appear, for the ivy is peculiar in this respect, unconcerned to bloom so long as it has anything to cling to, and producing its flowers only at the very extremities of its growth, when the branches no longer adhere to the boughs of the tree, and the leaves become ovate. This is specially remarkable when ivy clambers up some ancient building, a castle, or the relics of some roofless abbey; but it is plain enough in the case of trees, if the plant be of sufficient age. There is something peculiarly fine in the spectacle of a venerable tree with its circling ivy. At every season of the year ivy gives an air of richness; the gloss of the leaves, the easy swing of the masses of foliage, the chiar 3 oscuro caused by the long petioles, and above all, the pleasing sense of the stay and security which it affords, at every season of the year these are present to the eye and mind, and render a pilgrimage into the forest one of those animating poems which nature is ever ready to recite to us. Bracing up the old tree with its friendly clamps, so far from being, as many suppose, an enemy, ivy is in reality a protection; and when we see leafless and withered boughs rising above its verdure, like gigantic antlers, it is not because of the ivy, but from inanition. Still less is the ivy a parasite, as often imagined. It is not even an epiphyte. To be a parasite, a plant must send suckers into the very substance of its victim, and draw from it all that portion of its sustenance which other plants are accustomed to derive from the soil by means of roots. Ivy does not do this. Although attaching itself to the bark of the tree by ten thousand holdfasts, it has its roots in the earth below, and from the earth it derives its nourishment; and if the stem be severed, it will die like any other plant, unless, as has happened in some rare instances, it can manage to sustain life by absorption from the atmosphere. For this reason also, ivy is not, as we say, even an epiphyte, an epiphyte being a plant which simply rests upon the branch of another, just as certain zoophytes cling to sea-shells.
Oak Tree - Genus: Quercus - An article from "The Trees Of Old England" continued...
The oak is tenanted, not only by the ivy, but by epiphytes and a parasite as well. The parasite is the mistletoe, sacred in the legends of the North, and the berries of which have been supposed to be the "forbidden fruit." A good deal of uncertainty exists with regard to the mistletoe of the Druids. If so plentiful upon the oak as to allow of the tree being regularly visited for the sake of lopping branches, with the ceremonials which are reported of it the white robes, the golden knife, the hymns, and the procession then it would almost appear that some other plant, and not what we to-day call mistletoe, was the one in request. For there are scarcely more than six or seven extant examples of mistletoe growing upon the oak in this country, and unless it were abundant, at all events in some parts, it is difficult to see how the ritual could be carried out, unless at long intervals, and almost privately. The localities in which mistletoe is to-day found upon the oak are at Eastnor, near Malvern; at Tedstone Delamere; Dunsfold, Surrey; near Basingstoke; near Plymouth; and at Frampton.* (* For particulars, and an exhaustive account of the plant and its associations, see Dr. Berthold Seeman's "Journal of Botany," vol. ii., p. 361. 1864) There is no reason why mistletoe should not grow upon oak-trees today just as well and as luxuriantly as it is said to have done in the days of the ancient Britons. Perhaps the great sanctity ascribed to it came of the very fact of it being so rare. At the present day mistletoe is found chiefly upon apple trees and hawthorns. Some twenty or thirty other kinds of trees have been noticed as bearing it, the lime, for example, the poplar, and the acacia; but the two former are evidently its favourites. Because of the difficulty referred to as regards the Druids' mistletoe, some authors have supposed that another species, not now found in England, though plentiful in some parts of the Continent, may at the time of the Druids' worship have existed in our own country, and that it was extirpated either by themselves, or by those who sought to help forward Christianity by effacing every particular connected with paganism. The plant referred to is called by botanists Loranthus Europceus.
The epiphytes which give beauty to the oak, chiefly belong to that section of plants termed the Flowerless. Not that they are absolutely without flowers, but that the parts are too small to be viewed without the aid of a microscope, and thus that they are "flowerless " only when compared with a rose or a lily, or even with a grass from the meadow.
Those of their race which seek the kindly service of the forest-monarch are principally mosses and ferns. How sweet on a summer's day to rest awhile, when wandering in the woodland, on the green mantle that overspreads some prostrate trunk, noting the fairy forest of its elastic foliage, and the pretty little sprays that dart out upon every side, shooting hither and thither like the frost-flowers upon the window-panes in mid-winter! The mosses of the living oak are of precisely the same kind. In their tender and elegant sympathies they make no distinction between the overthrown tree and the tree that stands in its pride. One of their most exquisite specialities is that, like ivy and the faithful wallflower, they are companions alike of life and death, oftentimes adorning the one with bright hues foreign to its nature, and never failing to render the other beautiful. In the wild and desolate region called Dartmoor, strangely situ- ated in a county that otherwise is the "garden of England," there is a truly wonderful spectacle of this nature. On the left bank of the river, about a mile above Two Bridges, the hillside is heaped with blocks of granite, in the spaces between which are nearly five hundred trees of the wavy-leaved oak, singularly distorted. They are gnarled, knot- ted, and twisted, seldom more than ten to four- teen feet in height, and with a circumference not exceeding five feet, and generally much less. The belt is ragged and interrupted, and extends for the distance of about half a mile. Such a group of trees would not be extraordinary in itself: what renders the scene so remarkable is that the branches, except at the extremities, and this not always, are completely matted over with a moss, called by botanists, Anomodon curtipendulum. In most cases the green covering is from ten to twelve inches in thickness, though the branch that sup- ports it is not of greater diameter than a child's wrist. The weight is so considerable as to bend the branches downwards, just as we may see the branches of lilacs and other supple trees weighed down at Christmas by the gentle deposit on them of abundant snow; and all over the surface of this beautiful coating of vegetable velvet may be discovered, in their season, the little seed-capsules, by the produce of which the plant is multiplied. The name given to this singular spot, which seems as if it had been touched by the wand of some botanical enchanter, is Wistman's Wood. It is easy of access, and should be visited by every one who may happen to pass through that part of Devonshire.
Every old wood and forest shows us oaks bearing ferns. The latter are of the kind called polypody, or the "many-footed," on account of the numerous lateral leaflets giving the idea of feet, as in a centipede. On those rude and rugged bosses which the oak is so apt to form, some ten or twelve feet above our heads, there may often be seen a tuft of this elegant plant, perched completely out of reach, and decked with those gay spangles of bright gold which render the fern in question so easy of recog- nition, and attract the eye of the most incurious. All lovers of nature have been invited in the first instance to the specialities, by some particular plant or flower, which, holding up its finger, as it were, and beckoning, has allured them into one of those sweet side-chapels of the great cathedral, which, when a man has once entered, he never desires to leave. There was a fable in olden time of a coun- try in which grew lotus-trees. When travellers entered that country, and tasted of the fruit, they were overpowered with an indefinable and delicious longing to remain there always, not necessarily to be always eating lotus, but to enjoy the heavenly climate and atmosphere which produced it. That country, with its lotus-trees, has not been blotted out. The fable, like every other true one, is for all time. Living nature, everywhere round about us, is the country of the lotus, and the fruit is the serene and innocent delight, with innumerable sweet teachings for our intelligence, which comes of our looking at it reverently and lovingly. The beckoning thus given is always remembered with pleasure. Fries, the eminent German writer upon fungi, tells us he was attracted to the study of that class of plants, by the lustre of the crimson Dryads' cup, by botanists called Peziza coccinea, which in the earliest days of spring appears on dead branches in damp woods and groves, and resembles an acorn- chamber of coral-red. No slight pleasure is it to another botanist, albeit a mere stripling by the side of Fries, to view, over again and yet once more, year by year, in forest glades, where the trees are companions, that pretty and simple fern which, captured his imagination in early youth. The oak seems to take pride in holding the fern in its giant arms; the fern shows us how the grandest thing may be enriched by the simplest, just as great men, gifted with the might of wisdom, and able to pour forth in unbroken streams, music that makes our very soul come up and sit listening in our ears, still delight to be clasped by the sweet tendrils of simple hearts, to watch and help their strivings after the amiable and the true, to listen to their innocent songs, and to bless them with their bountiful protection.
The fern upon the oak must not be confounded with that one specifically termed "oak-fern" and technically called Dryopteris; nor yet must it be confounded with another which gives a quaint resemblance to the oak in the section of its stem. "Oak-fern" has no necessary connection with oak- trees, and is as often found far away from them as near. It is so called because the general outline or profile, when a leaf is laid flat, gives a pleasing idea of that of an oak standing alone, and viewed from a distance. This fact of resemblance in outline between things in other respects totally unconnected, is one of the most striking in nature. We should expect it in some degree from the intimate affinities everywhere displayed to the man of science. But it is independent of these, lying outside, just as the resemblance of the shake in music to the play of moonlight upon rippled water lies outside of any actual connection, yet is as much a part of the method and order of nature as the ripple of the water itself. So with the charming similitude of the painted leaves of autumn to the variegated western sky of evening. The close of the year and the close of the day acquire each one of them a tinted loveliness peculiarly their own, marked and soul-inspiring in the highest degree, yet, as to their own physical causes, in no measure connected or comparable. The two things lie outside, yet are alike, plainly because God says, death, departure, decay, need not necessarily be ugly and disagreeable to look at : they may be made lovely as life, yea, lovelier; and if there be wretchedness in their aspect, probably it is our own eyes that look obliquely. Whether it be a soul about to cross the river that has no bridge, or trees that are about to cast their vestures, and be for awhile, as it were, dead, or the day that is to be exchanged for starlight, it is still compatible with its passing away that the light of beauty shall be diffused there.
The other fern referred to as being often and very naturally associated with the oak is, in truth, like the Dnjopteris, the image of an oak-profile, but it is not from that circumstance that the connection has been supposed to exist. When the stem of the plant in question, commonly called Bracken, and by botanists Pteris Aquilina, is cut slantwise a short distance above the root, the section of the sap-vessels gives a kind of rude drawing of an ancient oak, loaded with exuberant foliage that bends the massive branches towards the ground. A thousand strange resemblances of this nature might be de- scribed, showing that our world is positively one of echoes not necessarily for the ear, but rather and mainly for the eye, which in its powers and privileges is the synthesis and compend of all the organs of sense.
Lastly, concerning the oak, should be mentioned the mighty age which it attains "The monarch oak, the patriarch of trees, Shoots rising up, and spreads by slow degrees; Three centuries he grows, and three he stays Supreme in state, and in three more decays."
Nine hundred years, that is to say, constitute the ordinary term of oak-life. But there are in Great Britain many examples of oak-trees of ages far exceeding this. The Salcey-forest Oak in Northamptonshire, described by Sir Thomas Dick Lauder as " one of the most picturesque sylvan ruins that can be met with any where," is calculated on good grounds to be more than fifteen hundred years old; while in Clipstone Park, Nottinghamshire, stands a venerable tree called the Parliament Oak, from a tradition that under its branches a Parliament was held by Edward I. in the year 1290, at which time it is probable that it was an old and large example of its species. We count it a grand thing if a man lives to be a hundred years old. How trifling is such an age compared with that of an oak, which in its ruins reminds us of Palmyra!
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