There is nothing quite as majestic as an oak, which is likely why ancient druids met in groves of them to perform their ceremonies. As I write this, I look at my glorious black oaks, white oaks, and burr oaks in the surrounding landscape and their incredible mantle of gold, tan, crimson and oranges. Where I live, the oaks keep the green on their leaves through most of the fall season and begin their transition into color just before Samhain. The oaks and beeches, here, are the very last to lose their leaves–if they lose them at all. Many of the oaks, especially the younger ones, keep their leaves all winter, dry and crackling, and only drop them before they bud out again in the spring. Their behavior in the fall and winter months is certainly a testament to their energy and strength. All across the land, the oaks’ powerful presence here at this time of no time, holding space for all of us as we move further into the dark half of the year.
This is a post in my “sacred trees in the Americas” series where I explore sacred trees in the context of North America, particularly the upper Midwest and East coast. Often, the meaning of trees and the place of these sacred trees in the ecosystem differs from traditional European sources, and so I’m working through a number of dominant trees here with extensive research, exploring their physical uses, meanings, magic, sacred traditions, and more. Previous trees in this series have included: Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, and White Pine. Today, we will be exploring the majestic oak, a dominant tree in much of North America.
Oaks in Many Forms
In North America alone, over 56 species of Oaks make their home. Where I live, we have about 20 different species of oak, although certainly, a few oak species dominate: chestnut oak, white oak, northern red oak, swamp oak, and black oak. In other parts of the US and Canada, different oaks may be present or dominant. The good news is pretty much wherever you go that is not a desert here, you can find oaks! And this is great news for druids, as the oak has been a primary symbol of druidry since the time of the ancients.
One dominant, majestic oak in the eastern seaboard is the White Oak (quercus alba); white oak is the most dominant species in North America. White oaks can grow up to 100 feet high, with a 5 foot diameter trunk. One of the few places you see such large oaks are in old growth forests, such as Cooks Forest in Western PA. Black oaks (quercus veluntina) are much smaller trees, getting up to 80 feet high with a smaller 3′ trunk. All oaks have a very strong, hard wood with a close grain. Oak in past times was used for any situation where strength and durability were required: old barns, oak barrels, railroad ties, posts, ships, hardwood floors, and furniture, to name a few.
Like most other hardwood nut trees (hickory, walnut, butternut), oaks are relatively slow-growing and long-lived. Some white oaks can live 600 years or more. Oaks are considered a “climax” species, meaning that once mature oaks are present, the forest is considered mature and no additional ecological succession will take place. Oaks are a keystone species in many forests on the East coast and in the Appalachian mountains: the oaks provide understory, food, and habitat for many other species and drive the overall shape of the forest. A typical mixed oak forest may also include hickory, white ash, tulip poplar, beech, sugar maple, or black cherry with an understory of serviceberry, spicebush, or witch hazel. This is in contrast to the other typical forest type, which here, would be the birch/beech/hemlock forest with an understory of witch hazel. Of course, I am writing here of the typical types of forests found in the Allegheny mountains; your own observations of your local ecosystem will also be helpful to determine how oak functions where you live.
Honey mushrooms (known around here as “pa-pinkies”) can be found on the roots of oaks infected with them. The infection that produces the honey mushrooms is armirillia root rot; it can be characterized by, as he writes in Field and Forest, “blackish, fibrous, rootish strands extending up the tree beneath the bark.” Unfortunately, honey mushrooms, while delicious, kill oak trees. The cycle of life can be a fierce one; I’ve seen honey mushrooms take out ancient oaks, turning them into soil once again, and have watched young acorns sprout in the remains of their ancestors.
Acorns and Acorn Eating Cultures
“The World looks different when you eat acorns.” Samuel Thayer, Nature’s Garden
Most oaks, like other hardwoods, have to be between 30-40 to produce acorns and up to 60 years to produce a full crop of nuts. Oaks flower in the spring; depending on the frosts that year, the frost may impact their nut harvest. According to Samuel Thayer in Nature’s Garden, oaks produce a strong acorn crop every 2-3 years. This is an ecological adaptation to prevent the populations of squirrels and other rodents that eat acorns to eat the entire crop each year. Smaller crops for two years keep populations small, and a large crop in a 3rd year will ensure the survival and continuance of the oak. Further, smaller crops train animals to “hoard” the nuts, stowing them in the ground and forgetting them, so that more oaks are born.
All acorns are edible, but in order to eat them, they have to be properly prepared. Different oaks have smaller or larger nuts–around here, my favorite for eating is the chestnut oak or the white oak, both of which produce very large nuts. These nuts are also both delicious when roasted. Acorns, like all other parts of the oak, contain tannic acid, which makes the acorn bitter without preparation. Leeching the tannic acid out of the acorns (through water extraction or boiling) turns acorns into incredibly delicious nuts and flour. For extensive instructions on how to harvest, leech, and prepare acorns, I suggest Samuel Thayer’s Nature’s Garden. Another good resource is the book Acorn and EatEm by Suellen Ocean. Euell Gibbons has several great recipes for Acorns in Stalking the Wild Asparagus, including candied acorns, acorn grits, acorn meal, and acorn bread and cakes.
The Native Americans used acorns as a key food source, making acorn meal and creating a flatbread that was eaten by many tribes (acorn was so important to so many tribes, they were called “acorn eating” tribes). Native Americans also used the inner bark (containing tannins up to 11%) which could be used as an astringent for many internal purposes. Thayer suggests that because of the history of exploitation and conquering in North America, part of the reason that acorns are widely thought to be poisonous was due to European-American’s disdain for Native American peoples. Returning, then, to the acorn as a food source can help us not only connect with the oak, but also deeply honor the ancestors of the land.
As druids know, the term “druid” is commonly translated “oak knowledge”, “oak-knower” or “oak-seer” referring to the fact that druids had knowledge of the oaks (and as oaks are a pinnacle species, therefore, druids had knowledge of the broader landscape) or perhaps, understood oaks on the inner and outer planes. In the druid tradition, oak is tied to that same ancient symbol of the druid possessing strength, knowledge, and wisdom. By taking on the term druid, we bring the power and strength of the oak int our lives and tradition. We don’t have a lot of surviving information about the Ancient Druids and their rituals, but one of the most famous was described by Pliny the Elder describes the druids as “magicians” who “hold nothing more sacred than the mistletoe and a tree on which it is growing, provided it is a hard-timbered oak….mistletoe is rare and when found it is gathered with great ceremony, and particularly on the sixth day of the moon.” The ritual is that two white bulls are brought, a white-clad priest climbs the oak tree and cuts the mistletoe with a golden sickle, and then they sacrifice the bulls and pray. This mistletoe, growing on the oak, was said to be the most powerful medicine, curing all poisons and allowing an infertile animal to reproduce. Pliny notes that druids performed all of their rites in sacred oak groves; when the druids were destroyed, the Romans cut all of their sacred oak groves down. You can imagine what those ancient groves must have been like when you encounter even a single ancient oak tree–majesty and presence.
In the Encyclopedia of Natural Magic, John Michael Greer notes that oak is a tree of power you can use it to direct and channel high levels of energy., particularly earth magic or weather magic. He suggests that the oak is the “most powerful of trees in Northern European tree magic.”
In the American Hoodoo tradition, Cat Yronwode describes in Hoodoo Herb and Root Magic that Oak (especially Quercus Alba) can be brewed into a tea and then added to a bath to remove jinxes; usually, a rootworker will also rub the client vigorously downward and pray as part of this removal. She also notes that oak and mistletoe are burned together to smoke jinxed people or to remove unsettled spirits or ghosts from a house/place of business (I wonder if this oak and mistletoe combination ties back to the ancient druids? Most certainly!). She also notes that oak galls increase the power of any herbal blend for any magical purpose; they can be carried or brewed into a tea for bathing to increase the potency of other workings.
Culpepper’s Herbal notes that the oak is governed by Jupiter and that the oak is known to help resist the poison of both “venomous creatures” and those of herbs and plants.
Finally, in alchemical circles, an article by Jean Dubuis titled The Preparation of a Powerful Spagyric Elixir without a Laboratory also offers some additional insight on the oak (here’s a link to one version). Dubuis essentially made a vitalizing spagyric tincture of acorn (for those not familiar with spagyrics, spagyrics are plant alchemy and allow you to make powerful, energetic plant medicine made in line with the alignment of the planets using specific techniques.) This oak elixir is vitalizing, carrying the energies of life.
Oak as Herbal Medicine
Primarily, oak is used as an astringent to help tone and firm up lax or leaky tissue. Of the astringents available in North America, it is one of the most potent. I was taught by herbalist Jim McDonald to harvest the inner bark of oaks for this purpose, specifically, the oak’s cambium. This, we dried and made into a tea/toner or into a tincture for internal use. Matthew Wood in his Earthwise Herbal (Old World Plants) likewise shares that oaks’ astringency is present in any oak tree. He mentions specifically the usefulness of oak for gum disease/loose gums, varicose veins, and other such lax/goopy conditions in the body. He also notes that oak can be used mentally just like it is physically. He writes that Oak, when used as a flower essence, “is the great remedy when the integrity of mind or body has been broken down by long, arduous suffering or usage….persons who struggle against adversity; never give up but never succeed; [oak] helps a person choose the battles they can win” (294-5).
Oak in the Mythology of Native American Peoples
I have already written of the critical importance of oak as a sustaining food for many of the tribes of North America, spanning the whole way from the east to the west coast.
In “American Indian Fairy Tales” Margaret Compton tells a story where the prince of the hares, a trickster, has his feet burned by the sun and then decides to go on a journey. Finally, he comes to the edge of the world where a cliff of trees stands tall. He asks the trees what they are good for, and ash, birch, and oak respond. Oak tells him, “I shelter the great warriors. I mark the spot for their councils. From my boughs are made the swift arrow that bring food to the feet of the hunter and carry the death to his enemies.
In an article with a modern Native American elder of both O’odham and Chicano heritage, Dennis Martinez. In the article Martinez shared a number of features of oaks in the US west coast. He noted that both red oak and white oak were considered so important to the native peoples of California that they considered the oak the “tree of life” because of its benefits both as food and medicine. There were many acorn-eating cultures in California up even until the 19th century in the US.
In one of my favorite Senaca legends, the mighty oak stands along with the tribe of the conifers (white pine, hemlock, and the others) to hold his leaves and to wear down the winter and bring spring in again. Not only does this show the strength of the oak during the winter months (when many other deciduous trees are sleeping) but it also shows the connection of the oak to longevity and power.
A Sioux legend, The Man and the Oak, tells a story of a young woman who is taken in by a chief’s family. She falls in love with the chief’s son, but since she is now a member of the family, it is not permissible. The young woman sneaks into the son’s tent for several nights, and in attempting to see her face by stoking a fire, accidentally burns her. He is so distraught that he goes under an oak tree and stays there all day and into the night. A small oak tree grows up through him and pins him and he cannot move. The young woman disappeared, and the oak tree is found to be a curse. A thunder god appears and frees the man of his curse, crumbling the oak tree.
The Magic and Mystery of the Oak in North America
An incredibly consistent image of the oak seems present from the different kinds of literature, mythology, herbal, and magical traditions in both North America and Europe. Here are three core meanings for the oak:
- Strength: The oak is obviously a sign of strength, both the strength of its branches and wood, and its strengthening qualities as a medicine and magical tree. All cultures have revered the oak and sought such strengthening qualities, and that strength can be seen throughout the lore.
- Wisdom/Knowledge: Tied to the ancient term for “druid” as “oak knowledge” oak has long been associated with knowledge and wisdom. We can see this also in the Native American lore, where oak “makes space for councils”.
- Vitality/Life: The most ancient druid ritual we have, as well as new work by Dubuis and others, suggests oak’s vitalizing quality. Oak can heal poison, strengthen the sick, and certainly, bring vitality and energy through the blessing of the acorn, as a “tree of life.”
- Thunder/Weather: As we can see from both the IndoEuropean traditions, oak is also tied to weather/thunder and thunder deities.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief foray into the majestic oak tree–and if you haven’t yet had a chance to visit an oak as it dons its incredible fall mantle of colors, perhaps this is the week to do so! Dear readers, I would also love to hear from you any stories you want to share about the incredible oak tree.