Nicola here. I’m away from my desk on a research trip at the moment so I’ve pulled up and re-written an old Wench classic post from more than ten years ago which I really enjoyed writing at the time and which feels appropriate all over again at the moment as we approach Royal Oak Day on May 29th.
Here in the Northern hemisphere the flowers and the trees are starting to look very lush as spring is slipping into summer. In the past couple of years I think I’ve been more aware than previously of the environment around me because of the restrictions on movement we’ve all been through as a result of the pandemic. I’ve always loved nature and the countryside but I’ve definitely looked at it more closely and taken more solace from it in the past months than ever before and one thing I do love is trees. I love their strength and their beauty and the way they can look so dead during the winter (unless they are evergreen!) and then leap into life all over again. I’ve also loved discovering trees we don’t have in England whenever I’ve travelled to other parts of the world. The Quiver Tree in Namibia was a particular favourite. A look at the list of “national trees” shows a huge and wonderful variety across the world.
In the UK and the US, it is the Oak tree that is considered the national tree. The Oak certainly has a long and special history. The Celts, the Norse and the Germanic races held the oak as sacred from pre-Christian times. In Greek, Roman, Norse and Celtic cultures it was associated with the storm gods Esus, Zeus, Jupiter, Donar and Thor because its size and low electrical resistance makes it more prone to be struck by lightning than other woodland trees. It was also believed to be a tree of prophecy and a channel for communication with the Gods. There is something both stately and so magical about the oak that you can easily see how some people feel it has mystic powers.
The association of oak trees and heroes also goes back a long way. The connection of hero and oak tree can be traced through King Arthur, whose Round Table was said to be hewn from a massive piece of oak and whose coffin at Glastonbury Abbey – if indeed the coffin was Arthur’s – was made from a hollowed out oak tree. Other oak trees that have been associated with British heroes include the Elderslie Oak (pictured), which was said to have sheltered William Wallace and 300 of his men (that must have been a BIG tree!) and Owen Glendower’s Oak from which tree he witnessed the battle between King Henry IV and Henry Percy. Even Queen Elizabeth I was said to have been standing under an oak tree at Hatfield House when she was said to have received the news that she had inherited the throne of England. And where else could Robin Hood have met his Merry Men than under the Major Oak in Sherwood Forest? The qualities of both hero and tree are entwined, representing strength, protection, durability, courage and truth.
The Royal Oak is the second most popular pub name in Britain, after the Red Lion. (Pub names are amazing, key words and phrases that give clues to social and military history, folklore, national heroes and heroines, natural history, dialects, trades, industries and professions, sports and the sometimes-odd British sense of humour!) The original Royal Oak was the Boscobel Oak near Shifnal in Shropshire where King Charles II and Colonel Carless hid from noon to dusk after the Royalists’ defeat at the Battle of Worcester in 1651. The legend goes that Roundhead troops, searching for them everywhere, actually stood under the tree where they were hiding – then went on their way, unaware that the Royal fugitive was overhead!
After the Restoration in 1660, the 29th May, the King's birthday was declared Royal Oak Day and celebrations took place at Boscobel House (picture on the left) and around the country. Traditionally, celebrations often entailed the wearing of oak apples or sprigs of oak leaves and anyone who failed to wear a sprig of oak risked being pelted with bird's eggs or thrashed with nettles! Unfortunately it was the popular cult of the Boscobel Oak that killed the tree itself; it was dead by the end of the nineteenth century because patriotic souvenir-hunters tore off its branches, thereby hastening its demise. However, there is a new “Royal Oak” at Boscobel House these days, said to be an offspring of the original. Although the public holiday for Royal Oak Day was abolished in the 1850s, every year on 29th May there are celebrations at Boscobel and Moseley Old Hall, another place that sheltered Charles on his escape, as well as in other places around the country. This year is the 370th anniversary of the battle and Charles’ daring cross-country chase to freedom!
There weren’t always as many oak trees in England as there are now. In the 18th century, writers warned that the oak was in danger from the gentry who were squandering the future by leaving woodlands to be destroyed by animals protected for the hunt, frittering away the birthright of future Britons so they might fund their passions for "horses and dogs, wine and women, cards and folly". It was left to the newly formed Royal Society for the Encouragement of the Arts to change attitudes. The Society offered prizes to those who planted the most trees. As a result, acorn fever took hold in Britain. Great aristocrats planted acre after acre of oak trees. Naval officers on leave, like Admiral Collingwood, went around surreptitiously scattering acorns from holes in his breeches. It’s no wonder the oak made a good recovery!
In my garden there’s only one space for one big tree and it’s a silver birch which I think looks absolutely beautiful even though it sheds seed pods everywhere in the autumn! Our closest ancient oaks are at Ashdown Woods, where there is one that is at least 1000 years old. But trees don’t have to be ancient – or huge – to be important to people. We recently tried to grow two tiny bonsai trees which were amazing little things and we have two dwarf acer trees which are very beautiful.
What trees grow in your part of the world? Do you have a favourite tree in your garden or somewhere you like to visit? Have you ever tried growing a bonsai or a dwarf tree?