Oaks: A Life Study


One oak tree exemplifies various oddities of this season. In the first place, never had this 200-300 year-old specimen shown so many of the lovely, yellow hanging male flowers. From a distance, the yellow was the predominant colour, for the first time in the 40 years that it is known to the present owners. Surely a couple of barrels of acorns would be the result. But we know what happened: frost after frost just wiped them out. From ground level there is not a glimpse of one incipient acorn. But what there is now is a profusion of marble galls, sometimes miscalled oak apples; they are a different thing. And the unusual thing about these marble galls, of which there are normally quite a number, is that now they come not singly nor in pairs, but in groups of five to seven.

Ralph Whitlock, in his book The Oak, tells us that they are most conspicuous in the autumn, when each becomes a brown woody ball about the same size as a marble or cherry. And then it shows clearly a neat round hole through which the insect at the centre has escaped: "a plump, juicy white grub" much appreciated by tits and others. This gall comes from the eggs of a gall-fly or gall wasp as all such excrescences do; in this case andricus kollari, and although it is Autumn as this is written, i.e. early August, and although some are yellow, if not brown, not one has made its way out. But a couple of galls were opened and a fine, wriggling, fat creature was there at the centre. Waiting for what?

Younger oaks about 50 miles away seem not to be affected. Oliver Wendell Holmes is quoted from his Autocrat of the Breakfast Table as writing of "the single mark of supremacy which distinguishes this tree. The others shirk the work of resisting gravity; the oak defies it. It chooses the horizontal direction for its limbs, so that the whole weight may tell; and then stretches them 50 or 60 feet ... to slant upward another degree would mark infirmity of purpose, to bend downwards, weakness of organisation."

He may have been an autocrat - was he an expert? This same gall-infested oak indeed stretches its heavy limbs (you couldn't put your arms around them), but then sends one down at right angles for five or six feet, pulls it up again and sends it over the hedge into the next field. Which is why many people admire the tree more in winter with its limbs bare than in autumn, acorns or not. Y