The Literary Gardener – September 2017
“Be you in the park about midnight at Herne’s Oak, and you shall see wonders.”
– In William Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” 1597
I’ve mentioned before that every year Jerry and I enjoy watching a performance at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, and this month I’m looking forward to experiencing one of the bard’s comedies, “The Merry Wives of Windsor” (MWW). Shakespeare wrote this play about the same time that he finally gave up his bachelor lifestyle in London and went home to his family in Stratford-upon-Avon, where he bought his first house, New Place, and settled down to life as a suburban Renaissance gentleman.
From a gardener’s perspective, “The Merry Wives of Windsor” is interesting in that Shakespeare mentions 20 different plants in the play, perhaps inspired by his own gardens and orchard at New Place to include a variety of specific fruits and vegetables: cabbage, carrots, peppers, potatoes, “pumpions,” turnips, apples, figs, pears and plums, along with several others.
However, it’s the oak tree that plays a significant part in the comedy; in fact, the English oak tree (Quercus robur) is one of the most frequently mentioned plants in all of Shakespeare’s 39 plays and sonnets, second only to the rose. In MWW, the not-so-merry wives lure Sir John Falstaff to legendary Herne’s Oak in Windsor Forest, where Falstaff gets his comeuppance for planning to seduce the wives and steal their husbands’ money. According to one of the wives:
“There is an old tale goes that
Herne the Hunter,
Sometime a keeper here in Windsor Forest,
Doth all the wintertime at still midnight
Walk round about an Oak, with
great ragged horns.”
In other Shakespeare plays, oak trees symbolize strength and endurance; indeed, Herne the Hunter signifies male masculinity. But in MWW, the bard uses the legend of Herne’s Oak to spoof small-town ghost stories and superstitious townsfolk.
Members of Shakespeare’s Elizabethan audience would have known several myths surrounding oak trees. For example, they would have known that oaks were sacred to Zeus, Greek god of the sky and thunder, and that oaks were home to the mythological tree nymphs called hamadryads. They would have known that pagan and early Christian ceremonies were held in oak groves because the trees were thought to provide an opening to greater wisdom.
Shakespeare playgoers would also be familiar with the old English custom of wearing an oak leaf or “oak apple” (gall) to celebrate the fertility of springtime, and they would have been able to recite the old English rhyme to predict summer rainfall by observing whether the oak tree or the ash tree leafed out first:
“If the Oak’s before the Ash, then you’ll
only get a splash;
If the Ash before the Oak, then you
may expect a soak.”
In addition to these stories, Shakespeare’s audience would have recognized the healing properties of oak bark, leaves and acorns, which at the time were commonly gathered to make antiseptics and ointments for reducing inflammation and fever. In fact, modern science has verified that oak tannins strengthen body tissue and blood vessels by binding with proteins and creating a barrier that resists bacterial infections.
Southern Oregon’s white oak (Quercus garryana) is a cousin to Shakespeare’s English oak trees. Our native oaks can live up to 400 years or more, but their numbers have dwindled significantly in recent years from land development and disease. However, white oak habitats support a diversity of native plants and animals, so steward-minded landowners are conserving oak trees on their property. The Klamath Bird Observatory in Ashland and its partner organizations provide guidelines to private landowners in their 2014 publication, “Restoring Oak Habitats in Southern Oregon and Northern California.”
If you have oak trees on your property, the OSU Extension Service offers suggestions to care for them. Be aware that oaks have shallow root systems that are easily damaged by construction and understory plantings. Be particularly careful not to compact the soil around the tree’s root zone, which extends 1½ times wider than the area between the tree trunk and drip line (where rain falls from the tree canopy). Mulching the root zone provides protection. Young oaks need watering every two weeks for the first growing season but, once established, white oak trees need dry soil. Oak saplings are more shade-tolerant than sun-loving adult oaks, and oak trees need plenty of room for their canopy to spread.
Some say landscape oaks benefit from a springtime application of slow-release, high-nitrogen fertilizer; others say not to fertilize oak trees unless the foliage becomes discolored or the tree is otherwise showing signs of stress. Heavy end limbs should be pruned back to avoid the risk of snapping from heavy winds and snow during winter; otherwise, prune oaks only to remove damaged branches or to adjust the structure of the tree. The best time to prune is during the dormant season; avoid pruning in summer when insects are most likely to transmit fungal diseases.
It’s not necessary to remove moss or lichen growing on oak trees; neither are the commonly found “oak apples” or galls damaging to the tree. The galls are actually cocoons made by the larvae of harmless gall wasps. On the other hand, mistletoe should be removed from oak tree branches because this parasitic plant competes for moisture and nutrients.
Following the popularity of “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” there was much controversy about where the “real” Herne’s Oak tree was located. Most authorities believe the oak stood in Home Park, Windsor until it was blown down by heavy winds in 1863. Queen Victoria commissioned another oak tree to be planted in the same spot, but it was felled again by wind in 1906. Superstitious folks might say these were vengeful acts by Herne the Hunter—what do you think?
If you enjoy stories about plants featured in Shakespeare’s plays, plus information about how to care for similar plants in your garden and landscape, then join me for the “Flowers of Shakespeare” garden tour from 10:00-11:30am on Saturday, September 16 at the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center, 569 Hanley Road in Central Point. Cost of the tour is $10 if registered at least 24 hours in advance, and $15 the day of the tour. Pre-register and pay by calling 541-776-7371 or online at http://bit.ly/JacksonMG2017.