under the lens - Quercus robur

Quercus robur / English Oak

Growing up on the sandplains of the upper-midwestern USA, the oak tree has always held a special place in my memory. Their towering presence and the way their branches teemed with wildlife was engrossing for me, and to this day they remain my favorite type of tree. Quercus robur is one of (2) oak tree species native to central Europe, and I am fortunate enough to come across them on my regular woodland strolls.


Latin name: Quercus robur
Common name: English Oak
Family: Fagaceae
Distribution: Europe
Habitat: Woodlands
Bloom Time: April - May
Other: Medicinal (bark); Symbolic (royalty, strength, survival)

With a mature height of up to 30 meters, the tree is often first recognized by its ubiquitous silhouette of sprawling, gnarly branches. It is often the dominant tree species in hardwood forests, where the open canopy filters light to the forest floor, allowing wildflowers such as bluebells and primroses to thrive. It is a long-lived species: in Lithuania and Bulgaria, there are specimens believed to be over 1,500 years old, and there are multiple specimens in England exceeding 1,000 years of age.

photograph: “ English oak / Quercus robur ” by  AJ Cann  licensed under  CC BY-SA 2.0  / cropped from original

photograph: “English oak / Quercus robur” by AJ Cann licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 / cropped from original

This longevity has made the English Oak into a revered symbol throughout many European cultures. Kings and royal emperors were adorned with crowns of oak leaves to symbolize their power and stamina. The tree became associated with the gods Zeus (Greek), Jupiter (Roman), and Dagda (Celtic)- gods who ruled over thunder and lightning because the tree was prone to frequent lighting strikes as the tallest feature in the landscape.

It is a generous tree, sharing its branches with hundreds of wildlife species, including over 400 species of insects alone! The flowers, leaves, and leaf buds are an important food source for native butterflies and moths, and the falling acorns feed local birds, small mammals, and deer. The acorns have been used by humans in the past, ground as a flour substitute, and the bark holds a popular place in traditional medicine as an effective antibiotic, used to treat fevers and dysentery while the bark tannins were used to tan leather.

Perhaps most consequential to human civilization is the oak’s use as a hardwood. It is particularly suited for building structures, and many of the bridges and houses of 19th century Europe (England in particular) are comprised of it. As a primary source of lumber for the imperial British fleet, whole forests of the trees were wiped out in the name of national defence and exploration. Today, it is still used as a building material and is prized particularly as flooring and winebarrels. Despite regulations put in place to protect the tree from overharvest, it still faces numerous threats throughout its native region from a number of pests and pathogens.

A historic perspective: Quercus robur in botanical illustration.

Raupenbuch “ Quercus cum Fructu ”, 1713

Raupenbuch “Quercus cum Fructu”, 1713

Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717) was a German artist and naturalist, who documented her botanical and entomological observations with her paintings. In her famous “Raupenbuch” (ie, ‘caterpillar book’) she documents the life cycles of various insects and depicts them with what she observed as the primary food source for each caterpillar species. Here, she depicts the Quercus robur with a local moth species.

Recommended books by and about Maria Sibylla Merien:


Photo: @ inkyleaves

Photo: @inkyleaves

Hyperrealistic botanical artist JR Shepherd (Inky Leaves Publishing) meticulously illustrates leaves in her large scale water color paintings. The Quercus robur leaf can be found as part of her book “Leafscape” which catalogs her leaf painting series.

Photo: @ katiekatiescott

Katie Scott is a digital artist whose scientific illustrations have been described as psychedelic. Her plant and animal illustrations and patterns have been featured in the Kew publications “Animalium” and “Botanicum”, and recently on clothing by H and M and Urban Outfitters. Here, she features Quercus robur on her temperate trees illustration as part of the Botanicum book (whose lovely plates are also available as postcards!)


1. Lauber, K; Wagner, G; Gygax, A. (2012). Flora Helvetica. Bern: Haupt.

2. “Oak, English (Quercus robur)”. The Woodland Trust. Woodland Trust Enterprises Limited: September 02, 2017. https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/visiting-woods/trees-woods-and-wildlife/british-trees/native-trees/english-oak/

3. Simmonds, M; Howes, M.J; Irving, J. (2016). The Gardener’s Companion to Medicinal Plants: An A-Z of Healing Plants and Home Remedies. London: Francis Lincoln Limited

4. Ronnberg, A. (Ed- 2010). The Book of Symbols: Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism. Köln: Taschen.

5. “Quercus robur -L”. Plants for a Future. Plants for a Future: September 03, 2017. http://pfaf.org/User/Plant.aspx?LatinName=Quercus+robur

6. “Quercus robur”. Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation Web: September 03, 2017. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quercus_robur#Ecological_importance

7. Wettengl, K. (2013) Maria Sybilla Merian: Künstlerin und Naturforscherin 1647-1717. Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz