English Oak; of sailing ships and mushrooms

Wood connoisseurs always mention English oak among their choices of the world's finest woods. Yet, if it weren't for some quite unusual occurrences, English oak may have never risen above the ordinary. The first of these relates to why some people call this wood "Pollard" oak.

Until the mid-19th century, England's sailing ships were made of oak. For stout timbers, shipwrights looked to the very old trees covering the English countryside. But so did England's seafaring rivals. In fear that invaders would cut their precious oaks, loyal Britons "poled," or topped, whole tracts. The trees did not die, however. Instead, the stumps developed new shoots and the trunks grew thick and gnarled, producing many large burls—one on record from the early 1900s weighed 22,000 pounds and measured 9¢ in diameter. From these trees comes the swirled-figure veneer often referred to as Pollard oak.

The second occurrence deals with the appealing color of English oak. Its distinguished tan has prompted the wood to also be called English brown oak. The color actually comes from mushrooms growing on the tree. Tannic acid in the oaks sustains the thriving life of the mushrooms. And as they grow, a chemical reaction slowly turns the wood a light brown.

According to English legend, people, during the superstitious days of King Arthur, believed the oaks to be enchanted. The mushrooms were thought to be tongues of gallant knights killed in past battles. So, the mushrooms were never picked for fear the original owners would someday return to claim them.

Photograph: Bob Calmer

Illustrations: Jim Stevenson