Tag Archive: history


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.

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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!

Write about a radish. Too many people write about the moon. The night is black … A radish rises in the waiting sky. – Karla Kuskin

Not often a prized poster vegetable, the radish seems to have languished in the footnotes of garden manuals, some only note that they are gratifyingly easy and very little else.  Easy they may be to grow, but there is an almost infinite variety of radish in addition to the one most familiar to the North American, a small bulbous cerise root that makes a cheerful, if likely ignored appearance on tupperware veggie plates alongside the cauliflower and carrots.

There’s such an enormous array of radishes available for the growing that it’s worth exploring some of the other types so you can enjoy them in almost every month of the year.  Raphanus Sativus has many cultivars and comes in round, oblong, carrot shaped, white, pink, yellow, bicolored & purple roots.  There are radishes sweet and tender, long and crisp, like gigantic smooth pale carrots, indecent in their smooth phallic forms.  There are radishes that demonically sear the palate in an unexpected contrast to their round innocence. Some varieties are grown exclusively for their greens. Radish seeds can also be used to produce oil.

Most of the smaller ones will mature in 3-4 weeks, which makes them an excellent catch crop for small spaces and intensively grown kitchen gardens.  Many are compact enough to be grown in containers, and fast enough to delight young children who are new to gardening. Although typically only the root is consumed, the leaves and seeds are also edible- one of my favourite treats is from late fall, uncollected radish plants may yield  fat pods full of radish sprouts.  Milder radishes make excellent additions to vegetable dishes, stir fries, salads & slaws.

The descriptive Greek name of the genus Raphanus means “quickly appearing” and refers to the rapid germination of these plants. Raphanistrum from the same Greek root is an old name once used for this genus. The common name “radish” is derived from Latin (Radix = root). Their true origin is vague, often said to be Asian, it is a wild plant growing all across Europe and Asia, and so very unclear where the plants that led to it’s domestication and taming of the fiery root originated. The greatest diversity of radish varieties are found in the eastern Mediterranean and near the Caspian Sea, which suggests but does not confirm that area as the place of origin. However, what is known is that many different varieties of radishes spread all over Europe and Asia, with different countries preferring specific varieties. Black radishes of R. niger were favorites in Spain, and another popular European variety to use in kitchen gardens was called R. radicula. In Asia, different varieties were cultivated; among them the R. longipinnatus, also known as Daikon, in China, and the R. raphanistroides variety in Japan.

The history of radishes is hard to unravel with any precision, they have certainly been  cultivated for food since well before Roman times when documentation becomes radically more plentiful. Roman records reveal descriptions of radishes in many colours and sizes, some as heavy as (reportedly) 100 pounds each. (As an aside, I suspect this refers to horseradish once again.  A large horseradish could be truly enormous, and both were often referred to simply as “radish”, but I could be wrong, the Sakurajima daikon is a hot-flavored variety which is typically grown to around 10 kg (22 lb), but which can grow to 30 kg (66 lb).) Radishes were cultivated in Egypt prior to the construction of the pyramids, and Herodotus of Helicarnassus related in his “Histories”, written from the 450s to the 420s BC:  “There is an inscription in Egyptian characters on the pyramid which records the quantity of radishes, onions, and garlic consumed by the labourers who constructed it; and I perfectly well remember that the interpreter who read the writing to me said that the money expended in this way was 1600 talents of silver.” Whether the radishes were valued primarily as a food item or for medicinal characteristics is not clear.  Onions and garlic were certainly prized as food and medicine, so it’s probable they were considered to be both. (Beer, bread, onions garlic and radishes~ seriously, those Egyptians must have had some killer dragon breath!) The Isrealites acquired a taste for radish after leaving Egypt, and brought the root with them. The Talmud mentions the use of radish seeds to produce oil, and considered eating radishes to have health benefits. In my quest I turned up an ancient Greek punishment for adultery utilizing radishes. Yes, I know, not quite what you were expecting, sodomy with a  root vegetable… it was a common device in plays of the time, but whether or not it was actually done is debatable, considering you had to catch the couple in the act. Radishes were so valued in Greece that golden radishes were offered to the god Apollo. At least that’s the oft-repeated rumour.  On looking into the tale, it appears that horseradish is actually the plant said by the Oracle at Delphi to be ‘worth it’s weight in gold’  which makes a bit more sense to me, radishes being such a fast crop to grow. The quote as I have found it is: ““the radish is worth its weight in lead, the beet its weight in silver, the horseradish its weight in gold” Lead was a valued metal in that time, this quote should not be taken to imply the radish had no worth.  In the historical records, Galen of Pergamon wrote that radishes were eaten in the region around 129-199 A.D. Also, the Greek physician Dioscorides documented drawings of radishes. However, these radishes were large, long varieties, from which the Long Black Spanish radish is descended.

The Chinese grew them as early as 700 B.C., probably earlier but it’s always hard to trace the path of vegetables historically. (again they may have come out of Asia.  Or possibly Turkey. Or the Ukraine.  Nobody actually knows yet.) Once they were introduced to Japan, they became even more popular.  Even today, the radish is the most popular root crop in Japan.  Asian cooking would not be the same without radishes, pickled, sauteed, in soups, stews, raw, dried…generally it is the larger, longer maturing radishes like the Daikon used in Asian cookery but not entirely. Certainly the array of Daikon types in Asian countries is wide.

Adding to the complications of the history of the radish is its many different names. In Europe, many of the names sound similar, from ramoraccio in Italian to armoracia in Greek, both used to describe radishes. By contrast, the names for radish in Semitic languages range from fugal in Hebrew to fuil, fidgle or figl in Arabic. In India the name for their radish variety is moola, and then the Chinese and Japanese also have entirely differing names for the radish. Sometimes, if the names for a certain plant are similar, the way a plant has traveled can be traced, but the many for radishes prevent a definite conclusion on the origination or even early propagation of the radish. Western Europe, though documentation is understandable scant has likely had the radish in cultivation since the Romans scattered themselves across it. A vegetable so widely known would have also been widely distributed.  I’ve seen several sources claim that radishes entered the Western diet around 1500, but that just defies logic entirely.  The issue is documentation, written recipes prior to ‘Forme of Cury’ commissioned by King Richard II in 1390 are sparse indeed. Radishes do not leave pips or shells in garbage pits or garderobes either, so it’s much harder to tell their presence in history as opposed to say, stone fruits.

Radish Varieties

Radishes come in many varieties but two growing types. The standard or salad type radish can be sown from early spring until fall. This variety dislikes heat so some growers do not grow them in the summer, or find a cooler place for them to thrive. In September, you can start them up again, and keep getting crops till the soil freezes. Try sowing a new batch every 2 to 3 weeks till the warm summer months.

The second type is known as a winter radish, or Daikon radish. This one takes longer to grow, about 60 days on average. Start these in midsummer, sowing every 2 or 3 weeks, so that your last harvest coincides with the fall frosts. Make sure you harvest before your soil freezes them in though, for unlike other tubular plants they will not overwinter.

Radishes grow well in almost any soil that is prepared well, is fertilized before planting and has adequate moisture maintained. Slow development makes radishes hot in taste and woody in texture. Rich, moist soils make for fast growing, tender plump radishes.

Radishes mature rapidly under favorable conditions and should be checked often for approaching maturity. Harvest should begin as soon as roots reach edible size and should be completed quickly, before heat, pithiness or seedstalks can begin to develop. Pull radishes when they are of usable size and relatively young. Radishes remain in edible condition for only a short time before they become pithy (spongy) and hot. Proper thinning focuses the harvest and avoids disappointing stragglers that have taken too long to grow.

Winter varieties mature more slowly and should be harvested at considerably larger size. Once they reach maturity, they maintain high quality for a fairly long time in the garden, especially in cool fall weather. Size continues to increase under favorable fall conditions. Daikon or Chinese radish, can achieve particularly large size and still maintain excellent quality. Winter radishes can be stored for a few months, given cool moist conditions. Black radishes have a particularly long storage liFe, in fact are best eaten after winter storage when the fiery flavour becomes milder and smoother.

Even if you totally forget about your radishes and let them bolt, don’t despair, the flowers add a pretty, spicy touch to a salad and the seed pods can be eaten fresh, pickled, or sprouted.

Getting Some

Radishes are an ideal trading seed, maintaining viability for long periods even under adverse conditions. Getting a few new varieties to try should not be a difficult task!  Even if you’re not involved in seed swapping, interesting Asian radishes have reached the wider market and it should be fairly easy to find a packet of daikon or black or watermelon radish in your local nursery or feed store. Happy growing!