If the Oak is the King of the woods than at no time is his reign more glorious than in autumn when his leaves glow gold and many beings are nourished from his acorns.
Whenever I have lived or wandered abroad I cannot think of Britain without thinking of oak trees. Perhaps then it’s appropriate that I have ended up in a village whose name means ‘place covered with oaks’ or ‘overshadowed by oaks’. Nowadays there are not so many great oaks remaining but sometimes, my husband and I like to stand atop the Downs and dream of the time when everything before us; the farmer’s fields, the gardens, the roads would all have been covered with oak trees.
Whilst the autumn colours of the oak are not as showy as some of the more exotic trees that are visible at this time of year in parks and gardens, their subtle beauty is somehow more deeply fulfilling. I said to my husband as we walked at the weekend, ‘the maples are pleasing to my eyes, but the oaks are pleasing to my heart.’
Oaks were said to be sacred to the Druids. Some suggest the name ‘Druid’ actually comes from the old Gaelic name for oak, Duir, though others have dismissed this saying that instead, it originates from Dru – meaning ‘highest’ and vid – meaning ‘knowledge.’ Who knows the truth, but I cannot imagine any race who lived amongst the oaks would not have held them sacred. Oaks appear in the mythology of many lands and there are about 600 species in the genus across the world.
The oak has many associations with protection and strength, partly because of the numbers of creatures that it shelters in its bows. Apparently it houses the greatest biodiversity of herbivorous insects of any British plant. Even in death it is home to a great many insects. In the Bach flower remedies, oak is given to those who offer their strength to others and keep persevering until they themselves end up drained and exhausted. Taking the remedy is thought to re-establish the positive qualities of oak, those of courage, protection, strength and endurance.
The oak tree was also associated with weather gods as apparently, it is hit by lightning more often than other trees. It has featured alongside the Gods of thunder and lightening in many European cultures, from Zeus of the ancient Greeks, to the Norse Thor and the Baltic Perkunas. This weekend however, it was also resplendent in the sunshine.
Acorns were of great importance to country folk as a primary food source for their pigs in autumn. Before this, they were also an important food source for people themselves and were eaten by a variety of cultures from all over the world. To eat acorns they must be soaked or boiled first to remove the tannic acid. I read a recipe for acorn muffins the other day, it sounded perfect for eating round the fire with a spicy herbal chai when the dark days of winter are upon us.
And of course the oak has its place in herbal medicine as well. A very useful astringent, the bark can be used to staunch bleeding of all kinds from haemorrhoids to a mouthwash for bleeding gums.
In pagan mythology the Oak King was said to reign from mid-winter to mid-summer, after which the Holly King took his turn on the throne for the second half of the year. But for me, Autumn will always be the time of the oak.
What is your favourite autumn tree?