Oak Apples

Oak Apple

I found these decorative little apples on a walk last weekend, then returned later with my camera. Rarely have I seen them so beautifully coloured – just like the apples they are named after.

Oak apples and other galls have been used to make ink since at least Roman times, and it was the most commonly used ink from the 9th to the 20th century in Europe – it is still used for legal records in the UK such as birth, marriage and death certificates because it is both permanent and waterproof. Best used in a disposable quill pen rather than your best fountain pen!

To make it, first you need some galls that have been vacated by the wasp and are dry. Crush them to powder, then add warm water and iron in some form, eg rusty nails or filings, and cover. Keep in a warm place to ferment for a few days. Then drain off the ink, filtering out the solids if necessary, and store it in an airtight container. It has a fairly short shelf-life; oxidation reveals the ink and turns it darker on the page, but isn’t so helpful before it has been formed into writing! The ink is also quite acidic, being formed from tannic acid and iron – although apparently crushed egg shells can be used to neutralise it and prevent it from degrading the paper.

Oak Apple

Medicinally oak apples can be used like oak bark to stop internal bleeding. However while chewing bark is fine, I cannot recommend chewing an oak apple – they are about the most astringent of all vegetable compounds. Instead, use a decoction. They are also known for curing dysentery.

There is not a lot of folklore associated with the oak apple. However, it is said that if a “worm” (larva) is found inside the gall on Michaelmas Day (29th September) then the year will be pleasant and unexceptional, if a fly is found inside it will be a moderate season, but if a spider is found, then it will be a bad year with food shortages and ruined crops. If nothing is found however, then serious diseases will occur all that year.

Group of Oak Apples

The oak apples used to have a much greater significance in England, being used as decorations on Oak Apple Day, 29th May. The mid 1600s saw civil war in England, followed by a very Puritan Commonwealth rule. All sorts of traditional festivities and activities were banned, such as Maypole dancing, Christmas decorations or feasting, carol singing, theatres, inns, football or other sports, walking on a Sunday except to or from church, and even wearing colourful clothes or makeup etc. Even the various Medieval Saints’ Feast days were stopped, and instead Fast days were introduced once a month. It was on his birthday, 29th May, in 1660 that Charles II rode triumphantly into London to return as King. The day was declared a holiday and was entirely given over to dancing, feasting and merry-making – and the event was repeated every year. The story of how he hid in an oak tree to escape parliamentarian forces became widespread and led to the Oak tree becoming the symbol both for this day and of England. To show their loyalty and support for the monarchy and its restoration, doorways were decorated with oak boughs and people wore sprigs of oak in their clothing or on their hats – of which oak apples are the most decorative part at the end of May. They were liable to be punished with pinching or nettles if they failed to do so!

Oak Apple

While this holiday has become much less known since the Victorians removed it from the official calendar (a day given over to merry-making didn’t fit well in that period!) it is still celebrated in various villages and towns around the country – including Castleton in Derbyshire where they hold a garland parade every year on this day.

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Hornets

Hollow Oak Tree

Hollow Oak Tree

I have mentioned before that there is a particular hollow oak tree near here that I use as a doorway for the start of journeys. There are several oaks in my area of a similar age, maybe 150-200 years, that would have been planted along the hawthorn hedgerows in order to give shelter to animals in the fields. This particular tree has lost its hedge and it stands alone but for the cows and the many walkers with dogs who pass it each day.

I first stood inside the tree several years ago. You have to duck down and step up to get in, and then stand carefully as it is only just large enough and my head is likely to find wood or cobwebs. There is frequently a pool of water lying just in front of the entrance. There is a second entrance to the trunk on the opposite side (just visible in the photo), but only for rabbits and other small creatures. It all feels quite special, and is surprisingly welcoming even though this is by no means an ‘Ancient’ tree.

However this last summer has seen some changes. Rubbish and part-filled beer cans have appeared on various occasions around and even inside the tree, and it became apparent that some people were using it in less than harmonious ways. I found this quite upsetting. Then on my next visit I was alarmed to see two or three enormous wasps flying out of the tree. Hornets?! What were they doing here? I’ve never seen hornets in my life, just read about them in books, and certainly didn’t know they lived in Northern England.

Hornet leaving hollow oak tree

Hornet leaving hollow oak tree

Having found the hornets still present this month, yet with a much happier feel around the tree, I decided to ask about them in a journey. The reply I got surprised me. The tree had invited them for its protection. It was worried about the potential damage by vandals, knew that I for one valued its presence, and felt that something had to be done. In return for their protection the tree was sheltering the hornets and giving them a place to live. I was asked if I would please take a picture of them and write about them, and assured that they would not harm me unless I did anything ‘silly’. (I failed to ask why it was important I write about hornets; I could guess, but I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.)

So here are the best photos I was able to take this afternoon – it proved trickier than anticipated as although there were about a dozen insects flying about, they didn’t stay still! Having a tripod (and possibly a better camera on top of it!) instead of a toddler with me might have resulted in better quality pictures, but hopefully this gives an idea of them.

Three Hornets approaching nest

Three Hornets approaching nest

I asked what the spirit meaning was behind hornets and had the answer “protection, but always look at what the hornets are protecting and why.” Also “Always likely to be powerful.” This is quite different from any meanings for wasps that I have found online, where anger, being a warrior, overcoming challenges, expecting the unexpected, and homebuilding or other new beginnings can be themes.

I have since wondered whether ‘protection’ was in fact a more literal meaning than is often ascribed to animals encountered in dreams or other worlds; it may be that hornets may also signify the same meanings as other wasps under different circumstances. From what I have found out from nature websites however, they mainly eat insects and are generally less aggressive.

I was also struck by how if we become tired and run down we leave ourselves open to unwanted invaders or dis-ease, and usually see it as a negative, unwanted presence. The oak tree, displaying an individualised consciousness that I didn’t know was possible, is aware that it is decaying and instead of allowing mistreatment, has decided which invader to invite within. And it has chosen a barely native species that is sure to be noticed by all and seems to be already doing the job asked of it. Nature in harmony.

I have been assured that the tree will be here for as long as I am, but not much longer. It will be interesting to see if that is indeed the case!