The Mighty Oak

The oak tree is more than just a tree. It’s also a symbol. And that symbolism is rooted (no pun intended) in fact. But before we talk symbol and fact, close your eyes for a moment and think about two types of trees: the palm tree and the oak tree.

Thinking of palm trees might generate images of deep blue oceans and crashing waves; white sandy beaches and warm tropical breezes. But now, imagine that a strong coastal storm slams into your tropical oasis. Palm trees sway pretty easily in a windstorm and if the wind is strong enough, they are easily uprooted and blown over.

Now, think of the oak tree. Chances are it conjures up images of forests, with birds flying between the trees and squirrels hopping from branch to branch. Deer take shelter beneath the shade of the thick foliage. Now, picture a good snowstorm crashing onto the scene. No matter how strong the wind, oak trees stand strong and tall. Branches may break off and the tree may be stripped of its leaves, but the tree remains standing.

So there’s a good reason oak trees are symbols of strength (physical and/or moral) and endurance. In fact, in 2004 Congress approved legislation naming the oak America’s National Tree. We’re not alone in that. England, France, Germany, Romania, Jordan, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Cyprus and Wales are just some of the countries with the oak as their National Tree as well. 

So why is the oak so strong? It’s in the roots.

Simply put, the oak tree is designed to last. In fact, the Seven Sisters Oak in Mandeville, Louisiana is the largest certified southern live oak tree, and is estimated to be 1,500 years old with a trunk measuring 38 ft.

The taproot is the first part of the oak tree to come out of an acorn, the seed of the oak tree. That root can grow more than 1.5 ft. (.5m.) into the ground in less than a year, guided downward by cells in the root tip that respond to the force of weight. 

As the plant grows older, the taproot produces side roots that can grow as much as 45 ft. (14m.) outwards. Feeder roots then grow off of the side roots. While most of the oak tree's roots grow downward in search of water and minerals, some oak roots also grow upward into very rich soil near the surface.  

Strong roots make for a strong tree. It’s the “mighty oak” for good reason!

— Frank Graff

Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on North Carolina Science Now, a weekly science series that airs Wednesdays, beginning in August 2013, as part of North Carolina Now on UNC-TV. In addition to producing these special segments, Frank will provide additional information related to his stories through this North Carolina Science Now Reporter's Blog!  

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