The mighty oak! It has a place in our history and in our hearts, a symbol of liberty and freedom. The white oak, Quercus alba, is also Connecticut’s state tree – the Charter Oak. According to Connecticut’s “Legend of the Charter Oak”, in 1662, the colony of Connecticut, owned and governed by England, was granted a Royal Charter by King Charles II. The Connecticut Charter allowed it to make some of its own rules and elect certain officials. Charles died in 1665 and his brother James II took over. James was not in favor of the Royal Charters and demanded their return. He wanted to establish a Dominion of New England, placing the colonies of New England and New York under one leadership. In 1687, Sir Edmond Andros, met with leaders of the Connecticut colony in Hartford. They refused to turn over the Charter. According to legend suddenly during the meeting all the candles in the meeting house blew out, in the confusion, the Charter was removed and hidden in the trunk of a large white oak tree, hence the name Charter Oak.
Despite Connecticut’s resistance, it became part of the Dominion for the next two years. In 1689 James II was overthrown. The Connecticut Charter surfaced once again and was used to govern Connecticut until 1818. On August 21, 1856, the Charter Oak, fell down in a violent storm, but many of its offspring have been planted throughout the state.
The white oak grows 80 – 100 feet tall, with a diameter of 3-4 feet. It has deeply lobed, simple , alternate leaves that are dark green above and paler green below. The difference between the white and black oak is that the lobes of the white oak leaves are not bristle-tipped like the black oak, they are rounded. Leaves are 4-9 inches long and 2-4 inches wide and have 3-9 lobes, usually 7. The mature trunk is light ashy gray and variable in texture. The acorn is 3/4″ in length with a shallow cup 1/4- 1/3 size of acorn.
The acorns are a great source of food, along with other nuts they are known as “mast”, for many types of wildlife including deer, gray squirrels, red squirrels, blue jays, quail, wild turkeys, crows and, according to the National Wildlife Federation, over 100 species of US vertebrate species . Acorns compose more than 75% of a white-tailed deer’s diet in fall and winter. Squirrels “accidentally” plant many of them. A single oak can produce thousands of acorns in a season. A failed acorn season can cause wildlife populations that depend on them to decline.
Native Americans and colonists also consumed acorns boiling them so they would be sweeter and more palatable. Acorns from red oak have more tannin, an astringent chemical that causes it to be more bitter, and therefore less often eaten by wildlife.
Various wasp-like insects are attracted to the oaks, they lay their legs in the living tissue and the tree reacts by forming galls – oak apple wasp galls. These galls look like small apples, but if you were to cut it open it would reveal the larva of a wasp.
The wood of the oak is strong, heavy, hard and durable. It is used for furniture, flooring, barrel staves and ships. The colonists made barrel staves out of white oak and exported them to France for wine casks and to the West Indies for rum.
Although the British thought the American white oak was inferior to the English oak for shipbuilding its inferiority was attributed to “the haste of cutting and carelessness of seasoning”. The Americans built their ships of the white oak. The USS Constitution, also known as Old Ironsides, is the world’s oldest commissioned naval vessel still afloat. The 44-gun, 3-masted frigate , built in Boston was first launched on October 21, 1797. The Constitution had a gun deck of solid white oak from Massachusetts, her keel was of white oak from New Jersey and Maryland provided white oak for her keelsons which ran the length of the ship and fastened the floor to the keel below.
The Constitution is most noted for her actions during the War of 1812 when she defeated four English warships, although analysis of the War of 1812 showed that the Constitution had no direct effect on the course of the war, what it did accomplish was to “uplift the American morale…and end the myth that the Royal Navy was invincible”.
The tradition of using white oak continued in World War II when the keels in our mine sweepers and patrol boats were made of white oak some of the trees harvested from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s estate at Hyde Park.
The mighty white oak…a piece of our history and a part of our lives. As stated in A Natural History of Trees – “The fortunate possessor of an old white oak owns a sort of second home, an outdoor mansion of shade and greenery and leafy music.” The white oak is the state tree of Connecticut, Illinois and Maryland.
A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America by Donald Culross Peattie
Trees of the Eastern and Central United States and Canada by William M. Harlow
Connecticut’s “The Legend of the Charter Oak”