Usefulness and services of the tree :
Features and characters of the individual
This is the largest oak and oldest tree in Brussels. Starting in a forest, then in a park with a castle that’s since disappeared, and then finally finding itself next to a railway, this seasoned tree has been through many ordeals. A strong tree that’s full of life, it offers food and shelter to an impressive number of creatures. A protective area should be built around the base to reduce compacting of the soil and allow the roots to breathe.
The Region’s own Empress
The ‘Josephine’ Oak is located deep in a patch of greenery that is known to relatively few residents of Brussels: the Jacques Brel park. On one side, she watches over a clearing; on the other, she protects a wood that nurtures a regrowth of young holly, hazel, elder, beech and maple trees. Measuring 38 metres high, with a trunk circumference of over 6 metres and a crown 30 metres across, this tree is the largest and oldest oak in the Region.
An urban forest ranger
For nearly four centuries, this tree lived in virgin forest. It grew in the old wood of Keersbeek, connected to the Sonian Forest. This veteran has endured many trials. Over the years, it has seen the surrounding forest shrink. At the end of the 19th century, it lost many of its companions: they were felled in order to lay the railroad line just 50 metres away. In the early 20th century, it became a pampered tree adorning a private park. It stood at the far end of the lawn in front of the castle of Adrien Tayard de Borms. It is named after the lord of the manor’s wife. This monumental oak has always been well looked after by the locals, who did not hesitate to take action in the 1960s to ensure its preservation. And today, it is under the protection of the municipality of Forest: they are trying to restore a woodland environment around it to encourage the reformation of a living, humus-rich soil, full of mushrooms and insects.
A fresh look at old age
This great hardwood is a Quercus robur: a type of sacred tree. Individuals of this species can live from 1000 to 2000 years. Their strength, longevity and ability to regenerate earned the respect of many ancient civilisations.
The Josephine Oak is many centuries old. It is hollow and twisted and prone to losing a large branch now and then, but this is not a sign of illness or ageing. Oaks are able to shed their dry wood and grow new branches. They have the incredible ability to restore their crown. In this way, they can completely renew their foliage in the middle of summer, if the leaves have been attacked by a parasite, for example. In fact, oaks, like all trees, can be immortal. The botanist and biologist, Francis Hallé*, a specialist in tropical trees and forests, writes: ‘If you keep a tree under the best possible conditions for its entire life and scrupulously shelter it from all possible hazards: you will discover that they do not die.’
The Josephine Oak should therefore have many good years left in her. This ‘strapping youngster’ is still growing vigorously. It is teeming with life, providing shelter and cover to countless other living creatures. The grooves in its bark are home to thousands of insects. Its branches welcome hundreds of birds: woodpeckers of all kinds, tawny owls, nuthatches and jays, and even bats. Not to mention the lichens and mushrooms. Only a tree of its mature years could accommodate such a thriving community. It is a privilege that comes with age.
The Josephine Oak is directly connected to another distinguished personality of the capital, known as the Double Oak. Their crowns brush one another affectionately. They ‘converse’, exchanging messages through the volatile molecules that they release into the air or via their roots: they communicate via the filaments of mycelium that connect their roots under the ground. By joining forces, these two trees are better able to defend themselves. And better able to defy time.
The Josephine Oak and her companion, the Double Oak are very different in terms of structure and each has its own character. But these two giants share certain traits that are common to their species: ‘Quercus rubra’. In Latin, rubra refers to the colour red. In the springtime, both of them are clothed in tender, young reddish-brown leaves that distinguish them from all other individuals in the park and forest.
The bark is unmistakable: it is brownish grey, with deep vertical grooves, occasionally interrupted by horizontal grooves. The leaves grow at quite a height: they are grouped in small bunches at the ends of the branches. You can get a look at them at the foot of the two trees: they are a simple, lobed shape, with smooth edges. At their base, they appear to have smaller lobes or auricles. In the autumn, the ground is strewn with acorns that grow on long peduncles (little stems). This is where the scientific name of the species comes from: the ‘pedunculate’ oak.
Hidden in the woods, the Double Oak is more discreet than the Josephine Oak. But now that you know their characteristics, you should have no trouble finding it.
This portrait is enriched with an illustration from the Belgian Federal State Collection on permanent loan to the Meise Botanical Garden. See attached. Thanks to the library (heritage collection) for this contribution. https://www.plantentuinmeise.be/en/home/