The Mighty Oak has Health Benefits as Well as a Long History
The oak tree is known for its longevity and the wood for its durability, but the different parts of the oak can bring health benefits. Quercus robur is the Common oak which grows in ancient forests across Europe but there are hundreds of different types of oak trees, some deciduous of the Quercus family and others evergreens, mainly of the Cyclobalanopsis family. This article is concerned only with the Quercus robur oak.
The Naming of the Oak
Quercus in Latin means oak tree, but this word comes from two Celtic words, ‘quer’ meaning fine or beautiful, and ‘cuez’ meaning tree. In Celtic the word ‘drus’ is the oak tree, and it is from this word that we get the name Druid, the priestly caste of the Celts who worshipped in groves, and who believed that the oak was the most sacred of all trees. The Latin ‘robur’ gives us the word ‘robust.’
Health Benefits of the Oak
All parts of the oak and its ‘guests’ have health benefits. Mistletoe was viewed by the Druids as “the universal healer” and used in medical potions. The oak apple, or gall, has been used in folk medicine to stop internal bleeding and haemorrhages; this is actually the larvae of the cynips insect and contains gallic-acid which is an astringent. A decoction of the bark of the oak tree is also used for the same purpose.
It was thought that the powdered bark was good inhaled to stop lung diseases such as consumption, in the early stages and this was used like snuff. The bark can be used in a decoction as a tonic, astringent and antiseptic, so it will clean wounds and staunch blood flow. Mixed with chamomile flowers it has been used as a substitute for quinine in malarial fevers.
Fresh oak leaves can be rubbed and then applied to wounds to stop bleeding too, whereas the powdered oak apples mixed with benzoated ghee or lard is said to be good for bleeding gums and haemorrhoids.
How to Make the Bark Decoction
You need 1 ounce of bark from the oak tree, to 2 pints of water. These should be boiled until the liquid has reduced by half. You can use this as a gargle and mouthwash, and apply it externally to wounds and piles.
How to use Acorns
Acorns are not just good squirrel food; early hunter-gatherers must have eaten acorns and although they are mainly given to pigs these days, we can benefit from them. They used to be roasted then ground to make coffee, but they contain a lot of tannic acid, and before using them you have to leach this out of them, by boiling them in at least four changes of boiling water. You boil the water then bring another pan of water to the boil and every 10 minutes, put the acorns into the fresh pan of boiling water. You can keep the water and use it as a dye if you use a mordant (otherwise the dye will fade). The water is also useful if stored in the fridge and kept for antiseptic purposes. It can also be used as a gargle, and a mild tisane of it will help if you have diarrhoea. It is also good to treat rashes and other skin irritations. If mould grows on the liquid just reboil it and store it again.
If you wash dark colours, the water can also be used as a detergent, as it cleans the clothes and makes them smell good too.
Once the acorns have been boiled they can be easily shelled so that you are left with the creamy meat which can be toasted or roasted and spread with honey as a snack, or coarsely ground, they make a good porridge for cold winter mornings. It can be finely ground and made into flour to use in bread and pancakes too.
The Oak is Entrenched in British Culture
In the 14th century the poem, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” tells the story of the “wild man of the woods” the Green Man or Jack-of-the-Woods or the god of the woods, who was represented with a foliate face on many churches throughout Europe. This figure is certainly pagan in origin and would seem to represent the power of nature in the face of the ‘modernity’ of the time and the power of the Church.
The oak is often used as a symbol of strength and we have the phrase “hearts of oak” and “men of oak” who were the Welsh bowmen and Silures.
There is an old rhyme in which the spring weather is predicted:
“If the Oak’s before the Ash,
Then you’ll only get a splash;
If the Ash before the Oak,
Then you may expect a soak.”
Villagers would hope the oak grew its leaves before the ash tree.
Most people are familiar with the saying "Mighty oaks from little acorns grow" too.
In literature a character with the family name, Oak, was steady, trustworthy and morally upright; such as Gabriel Oak in Thomas Hardy’s novel “Far from the Madding Crowd.” He was the antithesis of the romantically named Captain Troy in the novel.
The Oldest Living Plant
The Jurupa Oak in California is the longest living plant on the planet and is believed to be more than 13.000 years old. What looks like a grove of trees is actually from one tree which has regenerated or cloned itself over millennia.
Oak trees have an amazing history and certainly have more health benefits than we may have thought.