Common name: Oak tree, English oak, pedunculated oak
Botanical name: Quercus robur
Family: Fagaceae (Beech)
Worldwide distribution: Native to Europe, north Africa and western Asia, though planted worldwide.
Local distribution: Very common in the UK and Ireland.
Habitat: Hedgerow, woodland and parks.
Foraging season: Nuts in early autumn.
Oak is the most common woodland tree in the UK and Ireland; so much that it has been a national symbol of strength and longevity for English culture, heavily featured on folklore, literature and local history. The saying goes “Mighty oaks from tiny acorns grow” meaning that something great may come from a modest beginning.
Acorn is the nut of the oak tree (Quercus sp). There are two native species in Britain: the English oak (Quercus robur) and sessile oak (Quercus petraea). Both of them have slight differences and often hybridise in the wild (Quercus x rosacea).
The trees are all around us and are quite prolific; yet rare are the people who bother with acorns. The issue with the nuts is not their flavour but the effort involved in getting them ready to eat, because they are naturally inedible to us humans. Acorns are packed in tannins; a compound that makes them astringent and bitter and they must be processed (“leached”) to make them palatable.
All parts of the oak can be used, including bark, leaves and nuts. Oak wood is one of the hardest and most durable timbers and is popularly used for making the barrels in which good wine and whisky are matured.
The nuts are nutritious and provide a complete vegetable protein, the starch, which is the toughest thing to forage for. Nutty and sweet, they provide an alternative gluten-free version for regular grain flours that contains large amounts of protein, carbohydrates and fats.