Archive for October 22nd, 2010

The White Oak (Quercus garryana)

Oregon White Oak

THE OREGON WHITE OAK (Quercus garryana)

When I look across the skyline I still see the White Oak. These trees have been here in Cascadia for thousands of years. The acorns of the White Oak were an important food source for native peoples. Where ever you find these trees you will also find a vast ecosystem of food, healing plants and pronounced animal, insect and plant communities. For instance, if you look up into the branches of the White Oak in the fall and winter you will see mistletoe, at its base you will find small herbs, sweet flowered ground covers, and sumac (also known as poison oak).

When European settlers first arrived in Cascadia they found most of the valley’s of Western Oregon and Washington filled with White Oak forests. The trees are found on dry, rocky slopes of bluffs sometimes on deep rich, well-drained soil and low elevations. As you head south from Eugene, the species of oak trees are slightly different and they are named “Black Oak”.

The White Oak tree is recognizable by is deeply round-lobed oak leaves and it’s light grey bark, with thick furrows and ridges. The tree can grow to be 100 feet or taller.

The acorns of the White Oak were eaten by the local First peoples such as Salish and Kalapuyan, Chehalis, and Nisqually peoples. They harvested the acorns, soaked them to remove the bitter tannin, and pulverized them into a type of flour. These acorns were easy to store through the winter and were not prone to spoilage by mold, moisture or cold. The food from the acorn mash was high in proteins, carbohydrates and nutrients.The Chehalis roasted the oak acorn on a fire. Some first peoples buried the nuts in baskets in the mud of sloughs all winter and ate them in the spring. (Gunther 1945)  All acorns contain large amounts of protein, carbohydrates and fats, as well as the minerals calcium, phosphorus and potassium, and the vitamin niacin. Total food energy in an acorn also varies by species, but all compare well with other wild foods and with other nuts. (Wikipedia: acorns). It is important to remove tannins by soaking overnight in water. Since tannins, which are plant polyphenols, interfere with an animal’s ability to metabolize protein, it is important to remove them before consuming the acorn.

The First Peoples of Cascadia had many uses for oak including making combs, digging sticks and used as fuel.(Turner 1979). And of course, mistletoe is found in the branches of oak.

The bark of the White Oak was one of the ingredients in the Saanich  and Cowlitz “4 barks” medicine used against tuberculosis and other ailments (Turner and Hebda 1990).

Creatures that make acorns an important part of their diet include birds, such as jays, pigeons, some ducks and several species of woodpeckers. Small mammals that feed on acorns include mice, squirrels and several other rodents. Such large mammals as bears, and deer also consume large amounts of acorns: they may constitute up to 25% of the diet of deer in the autumn.

If you live in Portland, there is a beautiful specimen of the White Oak in a park near People’s co-op off of Powell street and 22nd avenue. Go sit under this tree and prepare to be taught. It is the mother of many trees in Portland. I found true grounding under this tree.


Gunther, Erna (1945) Ethnobotany of Western Washington: The knowledge and use of indigenous plants by Native Americans,University of Washington Press.

Turner, Nancy J.(1979) Plants in British Columbia Indian Technology, British Columbia Provincial Museum Press, Victoria, Canada

Turner, N.J. and R.J. Hebda. (1990)  Contemporary use of bark for medicine by two Salishan native elders of southeast Vancouver Island. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 229: 59-72
“respiratory ailments were treated with bark of Abies grandis, Arbutus menziesii, Cornus nuttallii, Prunus emarginata, Pseudotsuga menziesii and Quercus garryana;”

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