Today’s plant for #WildEdibleWednesday is Quercus alba, or White Oak.
White Oaks are one of the most stately, majestic trees in the forest, growing slowly to a height of 100 feet or so. They are a deciduous upland hardwood, found on ridgelines, mountain slopes, and other well-drained areas. They have dull green multi-lobed leaves, with bark ranging from gray to, well… white. When the trees are young, the bark is knobby, but once they grow large, it peels off in long strips. They are prime timber, with the wood being one of the most useful and sought-after in the Eastern forest. It is used for construction, flooring, cabinetry, furniture, and more. For most vineyards and distilleries, white oak is the only correct choice for wine and whiskey barrels. For our purposes, it is an excellent firewood, burning long and hot, and making a great bed of coals for cooking. It is also useful for bushcrafting tools and shelters. Keep in mind that it is very heavy and dense, making it difficult to carve. White Oak will dull an axe or knife in very short order.
White Oak is featured as today’s wild edible, because if you’re going to eat acorns, white oak acorns are the ones to eat. All acorns in our area are edible, but most are very bitter due to the high tannin content. White oak acorns still have enough tannins to make them bitter, but far less than, say, red oak. To leach the tannins from acorns and make them ready to eat, fill a pot about a third full of acorns, cover them with twice that much water, and boil until the water turns dark. Repeat as necessary until the water is clear. You can eat your finished acorns as is (they taste a lot like chestnuts), break them into crumbles, or pound them into a flour. This last method was preferred by the Native Americans, who made all manner of breads and cakes with it, in addition to using it to thicken their soups. The nutritional breakdown of white oak acorns is 50.4% carbohydrates, 4.7% fat, and 4.4% protein, in addition to water and fiber. This makes them a prime survival food: Proteins, fats, and carbs are all difficult to come by and highly prized when food is scarce. In addition to being food, white oaks can also help you find food. From a hunter’s perspective, white oak acorns are like cocaine to deer… if you want to stake out for deer, just hang your stand near a white oak. Squirrels obviously hang around white oak trees as well.
The bark and leaves have medicinal uses as well – the leaves are an astringent and antiseptic, great for making a poultice to draw down swelling and heal cuts and scrapes. Like many high-tannin tree barks, white oak bark makes a useful tea for reducing fever and inflammation, and relieving headaches. A tea made from the leaves has extremely high antioxidant concentrations.
Oaks are one of the most regal trees in the forest, and one of the most useful. They’ve symbolized strength and stability in cultures across the world since time immemorial. Reminds me of Isaiah 61:3, which speaks of those whom the Lord has anointed to bring freedom to the captives and rebuild the broken cities… “They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of His splendor.”
Be an oak.