Features and characters of the individual
Oak trees: facts and stories
The oak tree is the king of the forest. They have majestic silhouettes and powerful, ample crowns. Their wood is some of the most solid, and they show exceptional longevity. All this has led to oak trees having a sacred status in several cultures.
For the Celts, oak trees symbolised omnipotence and eternal life. They have also been associated with Thor, the god of thunder. The Greeks, Scandinavians and Germans all linked oak trees with gods who mastered lightning and thunder. For Greeks, they are the tree of Zeus, delivering messages to mortals through the rustling of their leaves.
Ancient civilisations saw oaks as temples of life, not only because it supports all aspects of human life, but also because it provides shelter and nourishment for a whole host of species.
In legends and popular stories, oak trees are said to be inhabited by all manner of woodland deities, nymphs, oakmen spirits, druids, dryad spirits, and other fairies and sprites like pillywiggins. Anyone damaging these trees would reap the wrath of these creatures!
Did you know?
It’s no wonder that oak trees commanded the respect of several different ancient civilizations: they can live for around 1000–2000 years! They can regenerate impressively well. Their wood is very hard and the trees are potentially immortal*. If they are able to develop immunity to chainsaws, storms and a few more diseases, then they could stay alive indefinitely.
In humans, ageing is caused by degenerating DNA over the course of our lives. Our genes don’t disappear, they just become inactive. In oak trees though, their genes become inactive every year in winter before being reactivated by an enzyme every spring. This avoids the process of senescence (deterioration with age).
Do the oak trees in the Sonian Forest have this same ability? They are one of the main tree species that collectively form a vast green lung for the city of Brussels. How much longer will they continue to live and serve this function?
The benefits of English oak trees
This forest tree can be used to decorate park landscapes and wooded areas in towns and cities.
English oak trees have ample foliage that is quite dense. They produce large amounts of oxygen due to the huge surface area of this foliage.
Slowly but surely, they also absorb large volumes of CO2 and sustainably store it in their hard wood.
They enrich the classic range of trees in the urban landscape. Oaks are a shelter and a source of food for many different species, from fungi and bacteria, to various species of insect, to birds and mammals. This makes them allies when it comes to biodiversity!
They are quite resistant to pollution and can tolerate their soil being compacted a little, so long as the soil is rich enough in nutrients and organic matter. If English oaks experience several years of drought in a row though, they do face difficulty. Therefore, climate change isn’t proving good for these oaks. Sessile oaks seem to be faring better and withstanding changes to their climate.
How to recognise an English oak tree
simple composition, with slightly rounded lobes; very short leaf stem (petiole)
leaves grouped in small clusters at the end of each twig; green in spring and summer; ochre-red in autumn; visible for part of winter before falling from the tree (deciduous)
acorns; long stalk (peduncle) and small cup-like joint
grey-brown, deep vertical furrows, sometimes combined with small horizontal furrows too
Specifics about this tree
This is a remarkable tree because the species can’t be found on the streets of Ixelles. Here in Bois des Commères, this tree reminds us just how much of a forest tree it really is. Its silhouette shows how it soared up into the sky to get as much light as possible, growing its branches at a high level to try and surpass its neighbours.
When you enter this wooded area from Cours Gordon Bennet, this tree’s huge trunk stands out on the left of the path. It invites you to tilt your gaze upwards. If you enter from the Verger Urbain d’Italie orchard, it is probably the deeply furrowed bark that will catch your eye first. The texture is quite mesmerising, and you’d be forgiven for being tempted to touch it.
In the 1930s, this tree was already growing here close to the edge of the wood. A path used to separate the tree from the large cultivated fields next to the wood, but this path is no longer there. In the 1970s, an elegant urban avenue lined with Japanese cherry trees was built running through these fields. After that, the eight-story Toscane hotel was constructed next to the wood.
From its position close to the edge of the Bois des Commères, this tree was able to witness the Ixelles countryside develop into what you can see today. This tree and its wooded area managed to survive the expansion of the urban area. In recent years, the small orchard was set up just outside the wood.
*Source: Francis Hallé, La vie des arbres, Edition/Publication/Article: Les Petites conférences, Bayard, p.20–21
(Story and photos created by Priscille Cazin- Sylvolutions)
This portrait is:
- Enriched with an illustration from the Belgian Federal State Collection on permanent loan to the Meise Botanical Garden.
- An initiative of Christos Doulkeridis, Mayor of Ixelles , Audrey Lhoest, portfolio holder for Environment, Green Spaces and Planting, and Tourism and the Ixelles Communal executive