Here in the United States, the oak is possibly the most well known tree of all. Oak trees are found in the Americas, Asia, Europe and North Africa, and there are nearly 200 species worldwide. The oak is the national tree of several countries because it symbolizes so many of the qualities we humans value: success, stability, fertility, endurance, power, strength, wisdom and health. The mighty oak was sacred throughout the major cultures of Europe. It was venerated by the Greeks, Romans, Celts, Slavs and Teutonic tribes. Because oaks trees seem to be more prone to lightning strikes than other trees, the oak was long ago associated with powerful thunder gods, including Zeus, Jupiter, Dagda, Perun and Thor. In the Bible, oak trees figure in the books of Genesis, Isaiah, Samuel, Judges, Daniel, Ezekiel and Joshua. For some Native American cultures, the oak is used as a clan symbol and is associated with strength of character and courage.
The Lenape Indians of the Oley Valley of Pennsylvania have a legend about a 500 year old Chinkapin oak that stands at 84 feet tall with a circumference of about 20 feet. According to the legend, there was once a powerful Lenape chief whose wife became terribly ill. None of the tribe’s healers or medicine men could cure her, and her illness worsened. The desperate chief journeyed to a Sacred Oak where he prayed to the Great Spirit, asking that his wife be saved. When the chief returned to camp his wife was healed. Many years later, the chief became concerned that an enemy tribe would attack - so again, he journeyed to the Sacred Oak to pray. The Great Spirit’s message to the chief was one of peace. The chief collected beads and blankets to offer the enemy, and war was avoided. Since that time, the Sacred Oak has been an especially holy place for the Lenape.
It makes perfect sense that humans have revered oak trees since prehistoric times. They provide a durable hardwood and countless products. Oaks all grow from tiny acorns and can live for centuries. More important perhaps, is the fact that other species are entirely dependent upon oaks for ecological stability.
Oaks are a keystone species, and that’s why the spread of the fungal tree disease, oak wilt, is so alarming. Oak wilt was first confirmed in Glenville, New York in September 2008, and at this point it has affected trees in at least 23 states. An outbreak was recently confirmed on Long Island by the Cornell Plant Disease Diagnostic Clinic. The disease has been spreading through Pennsylvania for a few years now, and New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection believes it could soon threaten the red oak which happens to be the New Jersey state tree.
Oak wilt is a relative of Dutch elm disease and it’s possible that it came to North America in the early 1900s. However, its source is unknown, and no other country has reported it. Although the disease can affect at least 16 species of oak trees, it has a greater affect on red oaks, and they seem to die off more quickly than white oak species. The oak wilt fungus, Ceratocystis fagacearum, kills oak trees by blocking the vessels that carry water and nutrients up the trunk of the tree to branches and leaves. The tree is essentially starved to death. Some trees die within a couple of months, and most die within a year.
Once oak trees become infected with the oak wilt fungus, they often become infested with oak bark beetles who help to spread the disease as they move from tree to tree. Other insects are possible transmitters of the disease, but so far, evidence is inconclusive. There is no cure for oak wilt, and the only way to maintain healthy trees is through prevention. Removal of affected trees is essential to avoid the spread of the disease, and often a soil fumigant is used after removal to kill the roots connecting trees below ground.
To avoid the spread of oak wilt here are a few of the preventative measures that can be taken: Avoid the transportation of firewood from one area to another. Never prune during the warm season. Remove affected trees promptly, and trench between diseased and healthy trees. With lots of diligence, education and a few small steps, maybe we can prevent the mighty oak from succumbing to the fate of the elm tree.
Just like the oak itself, great things can come from small beginnings.