The Mighty Oak

by Mary Mageau

Winter oak leaves on a branchWinter brings a cornucopia of new sights to appreciate as we travel southward to inland Australia. This year our destination leads us to our national capital city of Canberra. Located at the northern end of the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) near the Brindabella Ranges, this largest of Australia’s inland cities is sited at an elevation of 580 metres (1,900 feet) above sea level.

Gone are the lush sub-tropical trees and flowers of our home in Queensland as nature unfolds a new panorama before us. Canberra’s urban design was influenced by the garden city movement, thus it incorporates large areas of natural vegetation. Wide streets and boulevards, nature strips and parks, all create expansive and uncluttered vistas. These significant areas of natural vegetation have earned Canberra its special title as the ‘bush capital.’

Oaks line a city walkwayThe city boasts large numbers of hardwood, cold climate trees, and the mighty oak features everywhere. Deep gold to russet canopies soar above the homes and parklands, lending a rugged aspect to the surrounds. As the dying leaves begin to drop in winter, they litter the ground to produce a crunching sound underfoot. As we ramble among them we admire their size and colour.

For some botanical information — the oak is a tree or shrub in the genus, Quercus, (Latin for oak tree). The genus is native to the Northern hemisphere and includes both deciduous and evergreen species, extending from the cool temperate to the tropical latitudes in Asia and the Americas. Oaks have spirally arranged leaves of many varieties — serrated, or with smooth margins. Flowers, called catkins, are produced in spring and its fruit, the acorn, is a nut surrounded by a cup-like structure or cupule. Each acorn contains one seed and takes 6 – 18 months to mature.Botanical art of oak leaves and acorns

As a tree with many uses, its wood has great strength and hardness together with some appealing grain markings — particularly when quarter sawn. Oak planking was favoured during the 9th and 10th centuries for Viking long ships. Since the Middle Ages, wide boards of oak were prized as interior panelling, such as can be found in the debating chamber of London’s House of Commons.

Fine furniture has been crafted from this wood. Timber framed buildings and floor planks were often in use by the wealthy, while oak barrels were everyone’s choice for ageing wines, whiskey and for storing oil. Oak wood chips impart a wonderful flavour and aroma to fish, meat and even cheeses when these are employed in the smoke houses.

Bark from the cork oak, Quercus suber, produces famous corks and wine stoppers. Oak bark is also rich in tannin thus it becomes an important staple in the tanning of hides to produce leather. In Korea, oak bark is produced as shingles for traditional roof construction.

Slow to grow, standing straight and tall, shading a large area under its canopy and providing material for many uses — the mighty oak should be celebrated as one of nature’s great gifts.

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