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February Star Species: The English Oak

For this month’s star species we turn our attention to trees. Specifically, the mighty oak tree, perhaps the most recognised and beloved of our native tree species. John Jacques, Forest Ranger at Sherwood Forest, tells us why this magnificent tree matters to him.

“Sherwood Forest is home to the most famous living tree in the UK, The Major Oak. It is mind-blowing to think that this old campaigner has burst into leaf, produced acorns, turned golden brown and emerged naked into the winter once again, as many as 1000 times. Those early acorns were perhaps collected by local peasants and made into flour for bread and legend has it that Robin Hood took shelter in the large hollow of the Major Oak.

The life cycle of an oak tree

Perhaps the most well-known and dramatic of all the species’ life cycles, that of the oak tree is often used as a metaphor for potential: “Mighty oaks from little acorns grow.” And indeed they do. 

• There are 500 species of oak in the world and all carry acorns in little “cups”. Those acorns are the seeds of new life and, if successfully dispersed, they will germinate in the earth. 

• Once germinated, a tiny seedling begins to grow. This is the most vulnerable stage, when they are competing for light and nutrients and are susceptible to weather events, environmental threats and animal and insect attacks. 

• By the time it has reached 3cm -8cm in diameter and 1.5m tall, our seedling is known as a sapling. Still too young to reproduce, it remains vulnerable to threat but with luck, continues to grow over many years.

• It is only after about 25-50 years that the sapling becomes a mature oak producing acorns every year for new life cycles to begin.

How to spot an English Oak throughout the seasons


Trees are harder to identify in winter when the branches are bare and there are no flowers, leaves or seeds to give them away. However the English Oak is quite distinctive. It has heavy spreading branches that twist and turn and a rough bark with short, knobbly ridges. 


As new bright green leaves emerge in late April, so do male catkins and female flowers which spread their pollen on the wind. Those tell-tale twisted limbs and rough bark are still visible through the new leaves.


The canopy of green, lobed leaves is now in its full splendour. This is the Mighty Oak of our imagination, majestic in a forest clearing, filtering sunlight through to the forest floor. Acorns now begin to form in small cluster on stalks.


The acorns fall to the floor in early autumn, where most will provide rich pickings for deer, badgers and other mammals. The leaves begin to change colour as part of the colourful show of autumn, before eventually falling from the tree at the start of winter. And so another year is over.

6 things you didn't know about oak trees

• The English oak tree is the most common tree species in the UK.

• The wood of the English oak is one of the hardest and most durable of all woods; it's Latin name Quercus robur means strength.

• It takes up to 150 years before an oak tree is ready to harvest for wood.

• Oak trees support more life forms, either as a habitat or food source, than any other native UK tree species. 

• Oak trees can live for 1,000 years but on average they live for 150-250 years.

• Oak trees feature prominently in myths and legends that pre-date Christianity. Druids are thought to get their name from their own word for oak - duir - Druids meaning "men of the oaks".

The ancient oaks of Sherwood Forest

Back to Sherwood Forest and did you know that as well as the Major Oak, we have over 900 ancient oak trees, which are all over 500 years old. There are many myths and legends surrounding Sherwood Forest and I often think if only these old trees could talk, they would have some fascinating tales to tell. 

I have a few stories myself and look forward to sharing them with you when you come and stay. Book a Forest Ranger activity with me and I will introduce you to the oldest and most famous oak woodland in the whole of the UK. You can also pay a visit to the Major Oak, which was voted Britain’s most loved tree in 2014.”