The oak, specifically the Common Oak, Quercus robur is one of the best known species of tree in Britain and an icon of the British countryside. In my new 90 minute film for BBC Four Oak Tree: Nature's Greatest Survivor I take a look at the oak beyond its obvious beauty, longevity and unmistakable presence and discover how it plays a much greater, indispensable role in our society.
In the 18th and early 19th century Britain had the world's most powerful navy and nearly all of her ships were made of oak. HMS Victory for instance - famous for helping defeat the French fleet at the battle of Trafalgar - was the product of almost 6,000 oak trees shaped and sculpted by some of Britain's finest shipwrights. There was an absolutely huge demand for oak in this era and in just six years it was reported that one military officer managed to single handedly plant 922,000 oak trees.
Oak also played a vital role in recording our history. A huge amount of our history spanning more than 1,000 years was written in iron gall ink. Galls are tumor like growths made in response to the laying of eggs by tiny wasps. Gall ink was made mixing crushed galls made by the gall wasp Andricus kollari with water, iron sulphate and gum arabic. This indelible ink has preserved for posterity the Magna Carta, the American Declaration of Independence, the drawings of Leonardo da Vinci and the notes of Charles Darwin to name but a few.
New materials may have since replaced oak but it is still a keystone species in our landscape and very much relied upon for many modern day needs. For instance to legally be called a scotch whiskey the alcohol it contains must have been stored in an oak barrel for at least three years. Whisky is in essence oak-flavored alcohol. By treating oak barrels in different ways - by charring them and seasoning them with other wine and spirits it's possible to release multiple chemicals compounds from the oak wood leading to an incredible diversity of whisky flavors.
Most importantly the oak fulfills human's biggest need of all, undeniably the single most important natural process in the world, photosynthesis. In fact one large oak tree alone can produce almost a quarter of a million litres of oxygen in a year, enough to keep one human alive for a year.
The Oak was an invaluable resource to our ancestors and continues to play a significant role in all of our everyday lives.
Oak Tree: Nature's Greatest Survivor is available now to view on BBC iplayer