Quercus robur L.
Tanners Bark, Eiche
This magnificent stately tree does not require much description, as it is familiar to just about anyone. There are many different species of oak, but Quercus robur is the most common one throughout the temperate regions of Europe. They can grow to a height of 20 - 30 meters and tend to reach their final height, within the first 100 years of their lifetime. Oaks can grow extremely ancient provided they are allowed to mature; there are some trees alive today that are said to be over 1000 years old. From a human point of view, their reproductive cycle starts late -: Oaks don't produce flowers or acorns until they reach 50 years of age. However, from then on they usually yield an abundance of acorns for many, many seasons to come.
The flowers are tiny and not at all flashy or sensually stimulating, nor do they produce a sweet smelling, insect attracting scent, as they rely on the wind for fertilization. For all the inconspicuousness of the flowers the fruit are all the more symbolically pertinent. Acorns have long been regarded as an obvious symbol of fertility, and have been interpreted and used as such in folk-magical customs throughout Europe.
As acorns are too heavy to be dispersed by the wind, the task of planting them has been adopted by certain animals such as squirrels, who like the nuts and bury them for winter storage, but subsequently often forget the exact hiding place, thus giving the acorns a chance to germinate.
Oak leaves are inverted lanceolate (egg-shaped) with rounded, lobed margins. According to one old story, the leaves derived their lobed shape due to an outburst of the devil's anger. The story goes that one day the devil went to God, asking him for rulership over the forests. God replied that he would grant this wish and that the governance should commence from the time when there will be no leaves left on the Oak-trees. All winter the devil had to wait patiently and when spring came and the old leaves finally left the trees, the devil joyfully approached the Oak-tree, checking once more to see whether the time of his glory as the forest king had finally come. But to his great disappointment he discovered that far from being leafless the Oak tree was already happily producing fresh young shoots and leaves. Realizing that he had been conned, the devil hit into the leaves with his claw, and that's how the Oak leaves became lobed.
The bark of the Oak tree is gray and deeply fissured, the wood extremely dense and durable. The inner bark is reddish brown with longitudinal striations. The fracture is fibrous, with projecting medullary rays. The taste is astringent and bitter, the scent slightly aromatic.
The genus Quercus comprises about 600 different species with wildly differing attributes. Quercus robur is the most commonly distributed species in Europe, and the one most frequently used for food and medicine. Other species, such as the evergreen oak (Quercus ilex) or the Cork Oak (Quercus suber) may be locally common but not generally widespread.
Oak trees are an image of endurance, vigor and sturdiness. Naturally, our ancestors associated it with the king of the Gods, Jupiter/Zeus/Thor, the God of thunder and lightening, a deity who embodies the qualities of strength, power and potency. The majestic Oak trees were considered his earthly abode. Oak trees are said to extend as far below the ground as they reach up into the heavens, thus encompassing Underworld and Heavens alike. In Norse/Germanic mythology Thor/Donar/Wodan is a shamanic God who traverses these realms on his eight-legged stallion 'Sleipnir'. When he passes we hear the noise of his mount's thundering hooves as he gallops through the skies.
It is said that 'Oaks and Ash court the lightening flash'. The rationalization of this phenomenon consists of the fact that Oaks often grow where two water veins cross. Our ancestors on the other hand saw it as the presence of their thunder-god Jupiter/Thor. Lightening was regarded as a fertilizing heavenly fire, a gift of the Gods, which was awe inspiring and frightening, for it could both, destroy as well as fertilize the fields (by fixing atmospheric nitrogen, as the clever, educated 20th century person would hasten to add). Of course, thunder and lightening are also usually accompanied by heavy rains, which are just as necessary to fertilize the earth.
Oaks were rarely planted close to the farm, as their character belonged to the wild, untamed aspect of nature. They were considered far too sacred to be domesticated and besides, their affinity to lightening was not a particularly desirable quality to have around the home. Instead, single standing old Oaks and Oak woods were used as temples for ceremonies and as oracular places. The ancient Greeks heard the voice of Zeus speak to them in the rustling of the leaves and branches of the oracular Oak at Dodona. In Lithuania, Perkumas, the God of lightening and rain was celebrated in the sacred Oak forests while the Celts worshipped Dagda (Tanaris) in Oak-groves just as the Romans celebrated Jupiter, who was said to have found protection under an Oak tree when he was a little baby. The Germanic and Norse tribes perceived their thunder gods Thor and Donar/Wodan in Oak trees, which they considered their most holy sanctuaries. Sacred Oak trees and groves can still be found throughout northern Europe.
Oaks were used as meeting places for the village elders where they held their moots or tings (meetings) to decide on morals, law and order. Decisions thus made under the watchful eye of Thor himself were meant to endure and stand firm like the Oak tree itself. Court was held in their shade, oaths were sworn and no false word was tolerated in its presence. Oaks were held in such high esteem, that anyone who would dare to harm them was sentenced to death.
This kind of awe and respect was harshly ended by the fanatical christianizing efforts of the church, which went on an outright campaign against tree worship. A particularly keen clergyman named Bonifatius made it his mission to stamp out this 'idolizing pagan tree worship'. Under the protection of the army of the Holy Roman Emperor he turned his zeal against the famous Donar Oak, determined to slay it down. In the face of such an overpowering display of force there was little that the mortified 'heathens' could do. Anyone who would raise arms against Bonifatius was as good as dead. Thus, they simply stood by and watched in horror, secretly hoping that Thor himself would avenge such an act of sacrilege by striking the offender down with one of his mighty lightening bolts - but no such thing happened and thus the first exemplary case had been set. Many more sacred Oaks died this sad martyr death in the course of Bonifatius campaign, until he came to the Friesens (Northern Germany/Holland) who were not at all amused and wouldn't have any of it. When he laid his axe on their sacred Oak, they quickly took up arms and struck him dead instead.
Despite all this persecution tree worship would not die out. Eventually the church began to realize that it was fighting a loosing battle and acting according to the dictum of ' if you can't beat it, join it', or at least assimilate it, the Church decided to 'christianize' the questionable trees by declaring them holy to one or the other of their Saints. Thus it came to be that here and there ancient oaks that had survived Bonifatius' ruthless crusade were eventually declared officially 'holy' and to this day, rows of pilgrims come to these trees or their descendents, to pray, make offerings and worship them, now under official 'Christian' auspices. In a tiny village in Normandy a sacred old Oak tree itself was turned into a 'tree-church'. A minute chapel dedicated to 'our lady of peace' is built right inside the tree trunk. The approximately 1200-year-old tree is still alive; an awesome testimonial to the deeply rooted nature spirituality that was once common throughout Europe, preserved to this day, as it were, in Christian robes.
A surviving relic of these ancient times is the living custom of 'beating the parish boundaries', which is still practiced in England to this day. Once a year the vicar and his congregation march around the parish boundaries while the vicar recites gospel truths and psalms under certain landmark trees (Gospel Oaks).
Many individual old Oak trees, or groves became the living remnants of these ancient practices and frequently local folklore would be spun around them. Gog and Magog, two ancient Oak trees in Glastonbury, England are all that is left of an ancient sacred Oak-grove. Old records mention that once upon a time an oak lined passageway led all the way up to the foot of the Tor, the local sacred hill. Once an important spiritual sanctuary of the Druids, all these ancient trees except for Gog and Magog had to clear the way for farming.
In druidic times the Oak played a particularly important role and not just as the host for the Mistletoe, which was the holiest of sacred plants in druidic lore. The very name 'Druid' is derived from the Celtic word for Oak - 'duir' meaning door. Duir, door, Tür, Tor, can all be traced back to the Sanskrit root 'DWR', which also means 'door'. Traditionally, doors were made of Oak, as this is the strongest and toughest wood. It is also a wood of protection and thus wards off any evil spirits.
Esoterically, the door represents a threshold or 'in-between space', a time and place between the worlds. Robert Graves notes: ' In the Celtic tree alphabet the Oak is the seventh tree, holy to all the thunder Gods - Zeus, Jupiter, Hercules, the Dagda, Thor and Jehovah in so far as he was El and Allah. The fires for the human sacrifice of the Oak king of Nemi on Midsummer Day were always fuelled with Oak.'
The worship and sacrifice of the Oak king refers to a very ancient tradition according to which the kings' role was to ensure the fertility of the land. He was, in effect a human representative of the divine life force or vegetation spirit. When the king had become old and feeble he was challenged by a young hero who's task was to kill the king and thus claiming the role of king for himself thereby transferring the life-force from the old to the young. The king is dead - long live the king! This theme still echoes in the familiar legend of the fisher king and the grail castle.
Midsummer is the most important turning point of the year. The sun has reached its highest zenith on its journey around the ecliptic and it marks the longest day before the sun's decline. Midsummer is the threshold, marking the height and fight between the dark and light forces. At Midsummer it is the Oak king that is celebrated as the undying vegetation spirit, but at midwinter it is his brother, the Holly who will take over this role.
In the Celtic tradition midsummer marked the beginning and end of the year and the Oak god was also identified with Lyr or Llew who, like Janus is a dual character, looking in both directions, towards the future and its new promises, as well as back over the dying year. The Oak king is its jovial aspect symbolizing times of fruitfulness, riches and plenty. Images of exuberant summer parties spring to mind, where food and wine seem to be in endless supply. Hence, Oaks have also become a symbol of hospitality and indeed considering the number of organisms each Oak tree can sustain, their generosity is by no means purely symbolic. Each Oak tree could be considered a microcosm, or miniature eco-system.
Traditionally Oak wood was not just burnt at midsummer, but also at Christmas or Winter Solstice. The charcoaled remains are said to protect against lightening and the ashes were strewn on the fields to increase fertility.
Many parts of the Oak were valued for their counter magical properties. In the old days, the evil doings of nasty witches and devils were much feared, for they caused men to loose their virility and women to become sterile and they made the milk dry up in humans and animals alike. Feeding Oak leaves to the cattle or pinning sprigs of Oak on the door could prevent these witches and daemons from carrying out their evil deeds.
Oak wood is extremely dense, strong and durable and has thus found much use in building and construction. Ships were built with Oak wood, and railway sleepers were made from it, not to mention house construction and furniture making. Under water it is virtually indestructible, which is why most of Britain's ancient Oaks were sacrificed to build the Navy fleet that went out to conquer new lands for the Crown. Thus it is on Oaks that the British Empire was built. More than 500 000 trees were cut for shipbuilding alone - what a price to pay! The repercussions of this enterprise are still haunting us today: As a consequence of cutting down the old Oak forests Britain's landscape was denuded and turned into a treeless wasteland. An acute fuel shortage soon followed, which in turn led to the quarrying of coal and thus to the industrial age of steam engines and factories. Ironically, today Britain sends out its commercial fleet to import hardwoods from other countries.
Whiskey, Sherry and Wine barrels were traditionally made from Oakwood. The tannin renders the wine more durable and imparts a mellowing effect on the spirits. Oakwood is also often used to smoke various foods, such as fish, meat and even cheese, both for the flavor and its preserving qualities.
As one of its common names 'tanners bark' suggests, the bark is very rich in tannin and has long been used for tanning leather.
An infusion of the bark can also be used as a dye for wool. With salts of iron it yields a black dye, with alum root it yields brown and with salt of zinc it makes a yellow dye.
Native Americans are said to have dyed their skins red with the bark of Quercus prinus.
In Brittany compressed tan was used as a fuel.
The bark of the cork oak has long supplied the cork industry, though natural cork for use as stoppers for wine bottles is gradually beingreplaced with artificial cork. Still, sork has superb insulating properties and is still sought after as a building material, especially for insulating floors.
The nuts (acorns) can be roasted and used as a coffee substitute. In former times they were used as a main dietary item for pigs, though when times were tough the peasants didn't turn them down either. A nourishing, starchy flour can be obtained by grinding dried acorns. To reduce the bitterness of the nuts they should be washed repeatedly in running water or boiled in several changes of water. The flour can be used to make bread. Some American Indian tribes used it as a staple dietary item, using it for bread, pudding soup etc.
At one time the value of a piece of woodland was estimated in terms of the number of pigs that could be fed on the acorns it produced (hence the saying, 'the best ham grows on Oaks'). In the autumn the herd of pigs was released into the the oak forest to gorge themselves on the nuts. The swine herd would accompany them and beat the trees to assist the release of the nuts. Acorns, used in this way, were also one of the earliest forms of taxation. This may be why Oak leaves were printed on coins (e.g. Germany) - apart from the fact, of course that the Oak is also a symbol of strength, stability and wealth.
Folkloristic medicine made widespread use of various trees, not so much as remedies, but for the purpose of transferring the evil spirits of disease from the sufferer to a strong healthy tree, which seemed much better equipped to cope with it. The practice is known as 'transfer magic'. A variety of rituals were associated with this custom and all of them involved reciting certain spells, which caused the demon of disease to take leave from the body and take up residence with the tree.
Oaks, as the strongest of all the trees, were deemed effective against many different kinds of affliction, among them were gout, fever, toothache, headache and even broken bones. Sometimes bits of the sufferer's garment, some hair or fingernails were plugged into the tree with the help of nails (often coffin-nails), thereby banning the disease daemon into the wood.
Another practice, much used by arthritis, rheumatism and gout sufferers, as well as for malformed children, was to crawl through holes in the stem of the tree or gnarled roots.
Sometimes such holes would occur naturally, though more frequently they were cultivated. A young stem was split and then tied together again at the split ends. The gap in the middle was maintained until the two sides would heal naturally.
A charm-bag filled with Oak bark, worn close to the body was said to prevent prolapse of the uterus. Old Oak leaves were collected and boiled to extract the cold from chilblains.
Rainwater found in hollowed Oak stems was used against freckles, warts and blood in the urine. Oak was also believed to be particularly useful against the bites of venomous beasts.
Then, as now, Oak bark was used for its astringent qualities in the treatment of swollen glands, inflamed gums and loose teeth, for profuse sweating and as the no. 1 antidote against all sorts of poisons. Furthermore, it was widely used against bleeding and discharging (inflamed) wounds, against bed-wetting and hemorrhoids and against inflammation of the eyes.
Whilst some of the practices seem indeed obscure, others make a lot of sense considering the strongly astringent quality of Oak bark. It resists poison, not just because it is a herb ruled by the protective Jupiter, but also because the astringency prevents the poison from being absorbed by the stomach. Astringency reduces inflammation and acts anti-diaphoretic.
Dried inner bark from young branches
Tannin, gallic acid, egallitannin, phlobatannin
Anti-inflammatory (esp. mucous membranes), astringent, antiseptic, tonic, haemostatic
Chronic diarrhea, chronic dysentery, externally for nappy rash, gargle for sore throat, loose teeth, laryngitis, pharyngitis, tonsillitis, douche for leucorrhoea, liniment for burns and chilblains, sitzbath for hemorrhoids, eczema, psoriasis, swollen glands.
DRYING AND PREPARATION:
Use the bark of young branches and twigs but remove only in patches. If the whole circumference is removed the tree is likely to suffer severely or may even die. The leaves may be collected from May - July and should be dried in the shade. In spring the young twigs may be used to express the fresh juice, which can be made into a tincture by adding the same amount of alcohol and leaving it to macerate for two weeks. Strain and keep the clear liquid in a n air-tight dark bottle in a cool place. Administer a few drops on sugar or honey.
Oak bark should be considered wherever an internal astringent is called for. It can be used for chronic diarrhea, dysentery and mucous discharge, as in excessive stomach or lung catarrh. It is also used for gastritis and for stomach and duodenal ulcers, but should be avoided in cases of nervous stomach and intestinal complaints. An infusion is useful for all types of internal and external hemorrhages, such as from and ulcerated bladder or stomach, tuberculosis and liver inflammation. As a gargle it is useful for bleeding gums and sore throat, tonsillitis, laryngitis and pharyngitis. As a sitzbath or enema for hemorrhoids and prolapsed colon and as a douche for leucorrhoea. Used internally and externally at the same time it is a useful remedy for varicose veins. Externally it can be applied to burns, chilblains and nappy rash, skin irritations, weeping eczema, contact dermatitis and insect bites, sweaty feet and infected or discharging wounds and ulcers. A liniment may be applied to goiter, swollen glands and hardened swellings or tumors. A snuff made from the powdered bark is a preventive remedy for consumption, a decoction made from the bark and acorns with milk is considered an antidote and best first aid remedy for poisoning, whether from plants, mushrooms or nicotine. The distilled water made from the buds before opening can be used for inflammations, burning fevers and infections. Ground, roasted acorns (acorn coffee) are a good fortifying remedy for the elderly or sickly in cases of debility, weak digestion and anemia. The leaves are slightly diuretic and strengthening for the stomach. Externally, a decoction of the leaves may be used for tumors, wounds and blisters. All preparations of the Oak (bark, leaves, acorns) are toning and astringe the tissues.
According to Culpeper:
The leaves and the bark and the acorn cups bind the dry much. The inner bark and the thin skin that covers the acorn are used to stay the spitting of blood and the flux. The decoction of the bark and the powder of the cups stay the vomiting, spitting of the blood, bleeding of the mouth or other flux of blood in man or woman and the involuntary flux of natural seed. The acorn in powder taken in wine, provokes urine and resists the poison of venomous creatures, and the virulence of cantharides. It cools the heat of the liver, breaks the stone and stays womens courses. The decoction of the leaves work to the same effect. The water that is found in the hollow places of the Oaks is very effectual against any foul or spreading scabs.
As Oak bark is extremely astringent, it should be administered in conjunction with a mild laxative when given internally, so as not to constipate the patient. Homeopathically a tincture of Oak is used for alcoholism, offensive breath, constipation, diarrhea, dropsy, fistula, dizziness, gout, intermittent fevers, leukemia splenica, spleen affections. Some Native Americans have been known to let acorn flour go moldy and then use the mould in the treatment of boils, sores and other inflammations. The infusion applied to the scalp is used to treat loss of hair and dandruff.
It should not be used for nervous stomach or intestinal complaints.
Often given with Ginger before meals. Standard dose is 1 teaspoon of the bark to a cup of water, bring to the boil and simmer gently for 10 - 15 min, drink 3 times a day. Tincture: 1 - 2ml 3 times a day. For external use, make a standard decoction.
Oak bark is such a useful all-round astringent that it can be employed for all parts of the body where astringency is called for. To increase the specific action it may be combined with other herbs that are specific for a particular organ or system. For internal use it may be necessary to use it conjunction with a laxative to counteract its binding properties.
For weakly children and those who constantly suffer from rashes and swollen glands, it is recommended to prepare an Oak bath, by simmering 1 kg of Oak-bark with 1.5 liter of water for approx. 15 min. Walnut leaves may also be added to this decoction. Strain and add to the bath water. Administer a drink made from acorn coffee and cocoa with milk.
To make acorn coffee, collect the acorns in autumn, shell them and cut them into small pieces. Roast them in a frying pan without burning until dry. Grind in a coffee grinder and keep in a tight jar use 1 tsp of the powder per cup of coffee and simmer briefly. Add cinnamon or cardamom for taste.
To make acorn flour, the acorns are washed and drained several times until the resulting water is clear. This is done in order to get rid of the bitter taste. After this procedure they may be dried in the oven and ground into flour. Generally it is mixed with wheat and/or rye flour for baking.
Another method is to boil the shelled nuts for two hours changing the water every time it becomes brown. Dry the nuts and grind coarsely.
Edward Bach recognized the essential character of the Oak deva well when he chose the Oak flower as a remedy to fortify the endurance and will power of those who are normally strong but have reached their limits.
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