The Oak and Humans

The Mediterranean basin has seen the rise of several civilizations throughout history and the oak forests of this wide region are acknowledged as a crucial resource for the development of these cultures, providing fuel, lumber, and, in the distant past, abundant nutrition to the communities around them.

The key role of the Oak for these civilizations is reflected in the cultural significance this genus of trees holds in the traditions of the people of the region, adorning myths and being used as national and state symbols. Among the Indo-Europeans, the oak was venerated as the tree of deities associated with the thunder, including Greek Zeus, Germanic Donar/Thor, Celtic Taranis, and Baltic/Slavic Perkūnas among others.

Oakwood offers a caloric-dense fuel in the form of charcoal, without which, the manufacture of iron tools would have been hindered. The increased need for this fuel finds western Europe facing a severe deforestation problem and hardwood timber shortage in the 16th and 17th centuries, paving the way for the introduction of mined coal.

Lumber produced from oak trees, with differences in quality among the, almost 30, oak species found around the Mediterranean basin, has been used since antiquity for any imaginable purpose. Certainly, there are harder or more durable trees in the Mediterranean and the regions around it, but the usable lumber size is often small which limits their application or they are not available in the quantity that oaks do.

A number of the larger Mediterranean oak species can produce wooden beams in the large dimensions necessary for the construction of both buildings and ships. The restoration taking place in the Notre-Dame of Paris, after the ferocious blaze of April 2019, and the great amounts of lumber it demands, illustrate perfectly the quintessential role of oaks in the pre-industrial era and the environmental pressures this role carries along.

Around 1,000 healthy oaks, a small forest, aged between 150 and 250 years old will be felled to produce the necessary lumber amounting to a total of 2,000 cubic meters of pristine wood, or the 4/5ths of an Olympic size swimming pool. The trees have to be tall and straight, without fungus infestations, or other defects, in order to produce beams up to 18 meters in length, quite an impressive size of durable hardwood. It is not by luck that the roofs of the large European cathedrals are often described as forests, given the number of trees felled to construct them.

From common farmhouses to illustrious cathedrals, humble stools to elaborate cabinetry, and from the smallest boat to mighty juggernauts capable of trans-Atlantic journeys, the oaks catered to the needs of men.

Especially during the height of European expansion, from the 17th to the late 19th century, the access to high-quality oak lumber would determine a State’s success or failure, particularly in times of war with other maritime nations. The shipyards of colonial European powers had such high demand for oak tree lumber of specific dimensions to the point where usage outpaced regeneration leading to security issues.

Concerns were raised as early as 1792 of a decline in Britain’s ability to supply oak timber and an ever-increasing need to rely on imports to supply the Royal Navy. Gaining and maintaining access to sources of suitable oak lumber, while denying it to enemies was a crucial aspect of foreign policy during these times. The construction of ships as well as buildings requests the felling of healthy oak trees aged between 200 to 400 years old, which lead to scarcity of available timber in Europe in the past centuries and motivated naval powers to implement reforestation practices.

Coopers made durable barrels with staves from oak trees since roman times to store all kinds of food and drink, and oak barrels are quintessential for the aging of wines and whiskey, as the phenolic compounds present in the wood add to the taste complexity.

The bark, usually called tanbark, is rich in tannic acid and has historically been used for the tanning of leather or, in the case of the famous cork oak, the bark is very carefully removed from the tree to make cork used to stop bottles.

The fruit of the oak tree, the acorn, is technically a nut and has been used since prehistoric times as an abundant source of sustenance for hunter-gatherers humans. Even though human palates changed their preferences in the past millennia in favor of cultivated grains, namely wheat, and barley, archaeological evidence offers insight into the nutritional value of acorns for early inhabitants of the region.

What is more, highly sought-after truffles, a group of fungi, have formed a mutualistic symbiotic relationship with a variety of Mediterranean oak species and the region is famous for them.

Red was a beloved colour among many cultures and in the Mediterranean, the wealthy and aristocrats quite often wore scarlet clothing dyed with kermes, or carmine, made from the carminic acid in tiny female scale insects, which lived on the leaves of the kermes oak (Quercus coccifera), one of the most common oaks in the dry parts of the region.

To conclude, one can easily challenge the importance of the oaks and point to other native tree species which were highly valued by the peoples of the region. The olive tree especially, the fruit and oil of which has nurtured humans since time immemorial, along with the crop-producing carob, fig, and almond trees, and the lumber producing species such as ash, the cedar, the pines and firs, the poplars, the elm, beech and birch, or even the esteemed chestnuts and hazels, offering both nutrition and lumber, being coppiced for millennia.

These trees though are specialists, in the sense that they are found in specific climatic conditions. It could be argued that the oak is a generalist and many Mediterranean species survive over a variety of climatic and soil conditions, such as Kermes oak, Holm oak and Downy oak.

By sharing academic and practical knowledge regarding oak trees, the synergistic relations oaks have with other species in their forest neighborhood, and most importantly, how to grow them yourselves successfully, it is our hope that a grassroots movement will begin to support the restoration of these beautiful diverse forests of the Mediterranean.