Oak trees come from the genus Quercus and have 600 different species found around the world in almost every climate. High levels of tannins make the stout Oak resistant to insects and fungus, some living to over 1,000 years old and still going strong. Acorns are the fruit of the Oak and also contains high levels of tannins which can make them toxic to many livestock such as horses, goats and cattle. They are however a staple for many forest creatures such as squirrels and woodpeckers, but the biggest admirer of acorns is probably pigs.(big surprise!) Pigs are not affected by the acorn’s bitter tannins and can eat over twenty pounds in a day. In many locales pigs are allowed to graze on acorns to their hearts content, this practice is called Pannage. The most famous of the acorn eating pigs are the Iberico of Spain. The all black Iberico pigs are released into the ancient Spanish Oak groves called Dehesas where they fatten up. The result becomes one of the most gourmet foods in the world. After curing in the mountain air for several years, Jamon Iberico can fetch over $80 dollars a pound. And of course Oak barrels are used to produce some of the finest wines and liquors, each species of Oak adding it’s own unique flavors during the aging process.
Oaks have always held a revered position throughout human history. Respected for its strength, the very dense wood of Oak has long been used as a building material to stand the tests of time. It has been used to build such icons as England’s house of commons and Viking longboats. In Korea the bark of the tree is used as shingles, and the lighter bark of the Cork Oak has been used as a bottle stop for centuries around the Mediterranean.
The strength and longevity of Oak trees makes it an immortal symbol. In Ancient Greece the Oracle of Dodona was a sacred Oak of Zeus who’s priest divined events by listening to the leaves rustling in the wind. In literature, an uprooted Oak was the symbol on Ivanhoe’s shield- a perfect icon for the chivalrous knight who after returning from the Crusades must protect his native Saxon realm from Norman injustice. The Oak is also the national tree of many countries around the world including the United States. The most famous Oak in the United States is probably the Charter Oak in Connecticut. In 1687 England attempted to place stricter control over the colonies and in doing so sought to confiscate the Connecticut Charter of 1662 which had previously granted more autonomy. Defiant, the parchment Charter was hidden from the English authorities in the hollow of a large oak. Later, during the Revolutionary War the Charter Oak became a national symbol of the fight for independence. Not bad for a tree with such humble beginnings as a tiny acorn.