Category: Bramblings


The Oaks of Song and Story

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Photo by Aleksander Kaasik

Few trees have the immense history, the personality, and garner the reverence that Oaks do. Oaks are legendary. Although they are not the world’s longest lived trees, they may stand for many centuries, even a millennia, and reach great height and girth.  Some have  become well known as individuals, standing impassive through the rise and fall of man’s short ages and empires, shading one generation after another.

Notable Oaks

The Ivenack Oak  in Mecklenburg, Germany is 1200 years old, and called the King of German Oak Trees. France’s sacred Chapel Oak (Chêne chapelle) has two chapels that were

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Chene chapelle photo by Ji-Elle

built into the hollow trunk in 1669 and a staircase encircling the base of the tree. Hit by a lightning strike when it was about 500, the center burned out but the oak continued to grow, the local Abbot Du Detroit and the village priest, Father Du Cerceau, determined that the lighting striking and hollowing the tree was an event that had happened with holy purpose. So they built a place of pilgrimage devoted to the Virgin Mary in the hollow.  In later years, the chapel above was added, as was the staircase. The Rumskulla Oak of Sweden is acknowledged as the widest Oak in Europe at 14.4 metres, and the most famous tree in Poland is the Bartek Oak, which sheltered King Casimir III (1310–1370) and his court, as well as King Jan III Sobieski, who rested under the oak on his way back from the Battle of Vienna (1683)

There are multiple notable Oaks in Britain, the Sherwood Forest Major Oak, famous for it’s connection to Robin Hood, the Bowthorpe Oak with a hollowed centre capable of holding a dinner party of 20 people (for which it was used in the past), and several Oaks believed to be older than the country of England itself, within the boundaries of Severnake Forest,  the only privately owned ancient forest in England.

The Oak is sacred to many people, although perhaps most famously in western culture to the Celts. When one mentions the sacred Oaks, the prevalent imagery is of a grove of ancient Oaks venerated and whispered to by druids, yet there are Oaks as esteemed and sacred on the opposite side of the globe we easily forget.  In the Oley Valley, Pennsylvania there is a great Chinkapin Oak looked upon as the shrine tree of the Lenape people who were the original inhabitants of the region:

According to legend, a beautiful woman, the wife of a powerful chief, became very ill. All the tribe’s medicine men were called in; they administered many medicines, to no effect. Slowly, the chief’s wife became weaker and sicker. Finally, desperate for a cure, the young chief traveled to the Sacred Oak and there prayed to the Great Spirit for his wife to be saved. When he returned to camp, his wife was well again. Several years went by and the tribe was threatened by a hostile tribe. Once again, the chief traveled to the Sacred Oak and prayed to the Great Spirit, who gave him guidance. The warring tribes smoked the peace pipe together under it’s canopy.  Horticulturist Rachel Theis, who owns the land the Oak sits on, estimates the age of the tree as 500+ and most notably the Oak is of a species not found in the region, an aberration that may have been a trade item, making it all the more special.

Practical Uses

Acorns have long been an important carbohydrate source for people who still forage for food, and we are coming back to that as we try to find alternate sources of carbs that don’t require massive monocultures or ridiculous inputs to grow them.  Oaks are a prime example of hundred year + planning when designing a permaculture landscape, in fact a hundred year old oak is just a baby. You will have to wait a bit if you’re planting young oaks-they generally take about 20 years to produce acorns. Oak will eventually give you and all the nut-eating animals around you a large amount of available calories if you care to put a little time into the shelling, leaching and grinding. Excellent instructions on how to eat acorns, and which varieties are best for what, can be found here at Hunter Gardener Angler Cook. You may need a whole lot of space to process enough for large amounts of flour. The foragers I know who do this use an entire, tarped room to collect and sort the acorns.

acorns

Acorns photo by Norman Walsh

Wood is, of course, an excellent reason to grow oak. Many of the massively wide and incredibly twisted forms of ancient oaks were created by pollarding, the practice of cutting off the top part of a tree to produce a regrowth of a dense and bushy crown, generally for firewood or livestock feed. One year’s growth makes ‘tree hay’- small branches of fairly even size in abundance, while waiting five years or so produces many branches of even size that can be used in woodworking or light construction.  Strong, durable, easy to work and rot-resistant, oak is an extremely useful wood to have handy, and makes excellent firewood (White oak will produce 26.4 million BTU’s per cord.) Big boards require big trees, but firewood for rocket stoves and wood for durable furniture and tools are easy to come by with a few oaks available to sustainably harvest.

Medicine is another reason to utilize oak.  Oak possesses the following healing properties: astringent, fever reducing, tonic, antiseptic, anti-viral, anti-tumor, and anti-inflammatory actions. In addition, oak has been used to get rid of worms and other parasites. Number one use on my list, which is also kind of a cautionary tale, is stopping diarrhea. A simple tea made of the leaves or a bark decoction will also certainly constipate you if you’re not running to the john, so fair warning. Go easy on the internal use until you have some idea of how much it’s going to bung you up. This is another reason why most acorns require quite a bit of leaching before they are ready to be eaten.

A fast poultice of oak leaves can be used to bring down swelling and reduce irritation due a wide variety of problems like insect bites, poison ivy, or (ahem) hemorrhoids. 

The abundant tannins lend themselves to a whole host of other uses around a homestead.  Tanning hides with oak is old as the hills, although certainly not the only tree you can use.  Braintan.com has done a great job explaining how to go about the process.  Oak chips and leaves can be used to clarify and flavour beer or wine. Oak galls can be used to make a good dark ink. Oak leaves take forever to break down, (usually two-three years) so shredded leaves added to a compost pile are more a’brown’ material than ‘green’, but help to make a very stable mulch. Yes, they are acid, but it’s a weak organic acid and composting down oak leaves isn’t going to seriously affect your soil pH, unless you pile up a literal ton of fresh leaves in one spot.

Oak makes good mushroom logs (highly recommended for shiitake), and also is a host tree for delicious boletes, chanterelles and (nomnomnom) truffles.

Acorns make excellent pig and goat food, right around the time you might want to fatten them up.  An oak tree sited to hang over their pen, or being allowed to forage under oaks in acorn season adds nutrition and easy carbs to their diet without any work from you.

Oak makes microclimates. An old oak tree can be BIG- really, really big.  A hundred foot spread is an entirely reasonable expectation. Keep that in mind when siting a new tree or creating guilds.  One large tree can pump out a huge amount of water into the air via transpiration, change the nature of the ground under it with shading and yearly mulch, keep plants from the harshest of winter damage, even while leafless, and provide windbreaks and shelter in a field.

I’d like to make some notes about guilding with oaks here, but in reality your first considerations should be root competition and shade when guilding, because oaks are pretty convivial. Toby Hemenway did some research on the Oregon White Oak community and came up with these natives growing with White Oak: California Hazelnut, Pacific Madrone, Mazzard Cherry, Black Hawthorn, Saskatoon Serviceberry, Creambush Oceanspray, Round-Leaved Snowberry, Thimbleberry, Trailing Blackberry, Sweetbriar Rose, Broad-Petaled Strawberry, Poison Oak, Yerba Buena, Sweet Ciceley, American Vetch. From that, I’d say you’re safe with hazelnuts, any kind of Prunus, Amelanchier, strawberries, any Rubus, Ribes or Rosa, and leguminous ground covers. Ramps should work well in the dappled shade underneath. Garry Oak Ecosystems data may be useful in creating effective guilds as well- I know I’d sure love to see more mass Camas plantings!

Hope this helps you in valuing your Oaks, if you have some, or inspires you to try something new with them. Happy gardening!

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Musings on Moss

Mossy Log

Moss. Few horticultural subjects stir up as much disagreement as the lowly bryophyte.  Depending on your cultural context and personal opinion, it’s a pernicious pest or a heavenly gift that grows unbidden on any rough, damp surface that offers itself to the outdoors.  I happen to love moss, so beware, this article is biased towards making you love it too. Or, at least, consider your reasons for hating the stuff.  One of the biggest common mistakes people make when defending their animosity towards moss is that it’s destructive. “It’s killing my tree! It’s ruining my roof!” It isn’t, actually.

First, the tree.  Here in the pacific northwest we have a very damp climate for about 8 months out of the year, and moss enjoys nothing better than a damp, deeply fissured surface apon which to grow. Mosses are benign occupants of the bark, they are not parasitic or feeding on the tree in any way.  If your fruit tree is deeply mossed and not performing well, perhaps you need to consider allowing more direct light to it rather than removing the moss- moss grows best in filtered light, which isn’t the best for fruit trees in the first place. More light may mean you have lichens on the tree rather than moss, or a combination of both.  Don’t despair, lichens are an indication that your air quality is good, not that the tree is in distress! In the forest you can observe the Bigleaf Maple (Acer macrophyllum) completely cocooned in green fur and doing just fine.  The decision to remove moss is purely aesthetic.  If you must do it, remove in the tree’s dormancy when there’s less there to damage, but use caution and not a pressure washer, because that will certainly injure the tree more than having the fur coat! Lime sulphur  (dormant oil) will keep moss at bay, as will copper sulphate.  Before you consider removal, consider this:  the moss is a natural part of the system and may be helping benefical insects and fungi, the chemicals you apply to remove are not a natural part of the system and will have runoff into the lawn/garden, plus you should wear protective gear to apply them.  (Personally, I feel if it’s toxic enough that I need to wear a facemask and gloves to apply it, it shouldn’t go in my garden.)

Mossy tree with ferns

Mossy tree with ferns

Moss on the roof. Some people recoil in horror at the mere sight of a bit of green on the roofline- like it were some kind of furry plague.  Relax. Take a deep breath.  I’ve personally surveyed a number of people with mossy roofs (at the time of writing, about 50 homes) and have found no greater incidence of roof damage or leaks than on a perfectly clean, scoured roof.  Moss- cleaning services go on about how moss can hold moisture next to the roof, thereby reducing it’s lifespan.  I put to you the question, if a roof surface cannot take moisture, what is it doing on my house? If you have a run of sunny weather, the moss dries out as well.  It does not stay moist when the weather is dry.  Each type of roof has its own expected lifespan. Asphalt shingle roofs have an 18- to 30-year lifespan.. Wood shakes commonly last for 14 to 20 years. Slate, clay, tile and steel roofs will last 50 years or more if they are installed correctly. I have found no difference in the rate of replacement for mossy or cleaned roofs. Roofs under tall trees will have a shorter lifespan no matter what- but I’ll let you in on a secret.  One home I surveyed had a 40 year old, steeply peaked cedar shingle roof that was thickly covered in moss.  There was no leaks whatsoever, and they weren’t planning on replacing the roof anytime soon.  That’s 20 years OLDER than it’s supposed to be.  The battle against moss is most often taken on a shingle roof- being wood, it’s more likely to be colonized by mosses early on. I’ve seen claim after claim that moss lifts shingles- I’ve climbed up to look in on this widespread “fact”.  I have never seen ANY evidence that moss lifts shingles.  It grows in the fissures and may look like it’s doing that because of the growth pattern, but it is not physically lifting anything. Be-mossed shingles are at the same position as clean ones on the same roofs.  What can happen is when seedlings of vascular plants take root in a thick moss substrate, they CAN lift and displace shingles.  However, moss alone is not responsible.  One mistake the roof- cleaners seem to make often is claiming that moss roots are responsible for damage.  Moss has no roots. How many times have you seen a rock with moss growing under it, lifting the rock? Or moss growing in sidewalk cracks splitting open new sections with the slow implacable force of dental braces? That’s right, never.  It can’t do that.  A mossy roof may even have a hidden advantage over an unmossed one. The r-factor is raised by at least 3 with moss! I refer you to recent study at the university of Oregon for further info http://www.uoregon.edu/~hof/W08%20HOF/28%20Moss%20ppr.pdf  Don’t just take my word for it.  So, even if it did shorten the life of a roof (which I can find no evidence for), the energy savings over 20 years compensates more than adequately for it.  The only reason I can find for removing moss is in the case of a flat asphalt roof.  In that case, the roof is not meant to bear the extra weight and thick moss holding rainwater may cause parts to sag and drip. On any peaked roof, I see no reason to remove it. Green roofs are ‘in’, why fight it?

Moss in the lawn.  Well, if you’re a lawn zealot there’s probably not much I can do to convince you to leave it be, but there’s no real reason to remove it if you’re not using the lawn to play on.  Moss is harder to keep a perfect continuous surface if the lawn area is heavily used, and I would recommend trying another ground cover in that case.  Moss is effortless and looks greener in winter than lawn grass does- and it requires no care, perfect for the low maintenance person. The Japanese would like nothing better than a luxuriant, rolling green sward of moss in the yard- hating it is a reflection of cultural and aesthetic tastes, nothing more.  If an area in the yard is just too shady for grass, under shade trees for example, why don’t you consider moss as an attractive green alternative? Moss can be a lovely addition to the garden too-I enjoy having ‘forest mosses’ (they prefer a richer humusy soil and good drainage) in my shade garden.  A clean span of emerald moss  showcases petite Japanese maples like nothing else can, like having a blank white wall for a beautiful painting.  If you must get rid of it, iron is usually the solution but it’s a temporary one.  Most of the commercial moss-killer products contain iron, usually ferrous sulphate.  Moss loves compacted, acidic soils that don’t drain quickly, particularly in shade.  If you can correct those issues, you’re more likely to have grass than moss.  This means aerating and topdressing the lawn with organic matter, and adding sand to the topdress for faster drainage at the surface.  Adding lime to the lawn will also encourage grass and discourage moss.

For more on loving moss, I highly recommend George Schenk’s ‘Moss Gardening’ book, it’s a delightful journey into the world of mosses that’s a good read for amateurs and professionals alike, beautifully illustrated. University of Oregon has some excellent information as well.

Happy Gardening!

LeilaBee