Oak (Quercus robur) used to be the most English of trees, conjuring up images of stolid yeoman warriors and fighting sailors with “hearts of oak”. Natural forests of Oak once cloaked Britain but were decimated by clearance for agriculture, for house- building and especially for shipbuilding.
In the Celtic Tree Calendar described by Robert Graves in “The White Goddess” 2, the Oak month (Duir – hence oaken doors) covers the summer solstice. Oak is therefore The King of Summer. However, the next month, Tinne is ascribed to the Holly Tree (Ilex aquifolium), which, “of all the trees that are in the wood”...”bears the crown”. Graves asserts that Tinne was originally ascribed to the Holm Oak (Quercus ilex), other names being Tannus or Tan. This was because Holm Oak was Oak’s twin or rival – the Tanist. Holm Oak was the King of Winter, beheading Oak at Midsummer when the power of growth begins to wane. Oak then takes its turn at the Winter Solstice, signalling the coming triumph of Summer over Winter. The endless cycle of winter rest for the land and summer activity was, Graves argues, ritually ensured by this beheading of kings to please the Goddess.
|Abstract oakleaf drawing |
uses all the leaf colours from Spring through to Autumn
Bark from the Tanist tree, Holm Oak was used to “tan“ rawhides into leather. Oak Bark itself, and particularly, Oak galls can and were also used. Oak owes its astringent effect on rawhide and on the human body to its high content of tannins. Modern phytochemists prefer to use the more chemically precise name of polyphenolic compounds instead of tannins.
Medicinally, Oak is the quintessential British astringent remedy, bringing that drying, tightening feeling when taken by mouth. This is especially true of Quercus robur but other species can be used in the same way. Oak bark is the usual form used; pieces of bark simmered for 10-20 minutes in water (a decoction). This decoction can be drunk to correct diarrhoea or dysentery when discharge has become debilitating. Oak bark can be used also for serious conditions which require qualified healthcare advice - to stop internal bleeding, to aid healing of stomach ulcers and to alleviate the coughing up of blood.
Topically, oak bark decoction can be used as a gargle to restore tone to throats irritated by congestion, as a vaginal douche and as an astringent wash for haemorrhoids and varicose ulcers.
Oak is especially a herb of choice where the overall picture is of over-relaxed tissues with excessive watery discharge I find it useful, sometimes, for women experiencing menopausal hot flushes who want better control of fluid loss (sweating), blood circulation (heat) and a feeling of dissipation (pulling themselves together) .
I have seldom used Oak in my practice, preferring more subtle astringents like Agrimony, Yarrow, Raspberry or Ladies Mantle. Perhaps it is more common in modern times for the herbalist to encounter patients who are, overall, too tense and constricted rather than being too relaxed!
Oak in the Kalevala
An archetypal heroic depiction of the topical application of Oak in wound healing (i.e. as a vulnerary) can be found in the Finnish epic, Kalevala. Vainamöinen, (son of the waves, the great Water hero, and thus arguably prone to the over-relaxed tissue state) suffers a terrible wound from his own axe when he is boastfully trying to build a boat from the fragments of the maid of Puhjo’s shattered spindle in order to win her hand. The wound will not stop bleeding:
From the wound the blood flowed freely
Bursting forth in streaming torrents3
He asks all sorts of people to help but ends up with an old man who sends his son into the smithy to prepare a salve,
From the blades of magic grasses
From the thousand-headed yarrow
And from dripping mountain honey
On the way he passed an oak tree of which he took the slender twigs. 4
He boiled up the whole for several days, adding more herbage until he judged the salve had reached the right consistency.
He tried out the binding qualities of the mixture first before applying (presumably because Vainamöinen’s wound, him being a hero and all, is the ultimate challenge).
And in twain he broke (an )Aspen
And the tree completely severed
With the magic salve he smeared it
Then at once was healed the aspen
And just to make sure:
And on shattered rocks he rubbed it
And the stone with stone knit firmly
And the cracks were fixed together
(Now that’s one astringent healing ointment!)
At last, the old man applied the ointment to Vainamöinen:
Almost fainting with the anguish
Vainamoinen writhed and struggled
But eventually after careful bandaging and prayer by the old man:
Then the aged Vainamöinen
Felt he had regained his vigour
And that he was healed completely
And his flesh again was solid
And beneath it all was healthy
In his body he was painless
As a vitalistic herbalist, I take this story as a metaphor for the amazing binding quality of astringent remedies including Oak.
Oak Flower Essence
Finally, Dr Edward Bach discovered a subtle influence of Oak flowers in one of his Flower essences – the remedy for plodders, for those who overwork but hide tiredness, for those who are despondent but struggle on but also for those who maintain an obstinate, relentless effort, although it may have become useless.5
So Oak represents longevity, hardiness, toughness but also the Jovial qualities (i.e. those of Jupiter); majesty, abundance.
1 “The Door into Summer” is a science fiction novel by Robert Heinlein which has nothing whatsoever to do with Oak but we thought it was a good title!
2 Robert Graves (1960) The White Goddess London Faber & Faber
3 W F Kirby (translator) (1985) Kalevala – The Land of Heroes London The Athlone Press
4 Conducting a herb walk at Riseholme, University of Lincoln, I recently encountered a Turkey Oak (Quercus cerris) with numerous galls on the “slender twigs” at the tips of its branches. Perhaps the un-named son of the smithy used twigs bearing galls to up the astringency of his salve. If you want high tannin parts of the oak, picked sustainably, then these would be the way to go.
5 T W Hyne Jones (1976) Dictionary of The Bach Flower Remedies – positive and negative aspects Saffron Walden C W Daniel