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Carlos collecting Quercus ×alentejana (Q. faginea × Q. pyrenaica) in northeastern Portugal for his PhD thesis © Carlos Vila-Viçosa
An interview with Portuguese oak conservationist Dr. Carlos...
Amy Byrne | Apr 19, 2024
Roderick Cameron | Apr 13, 2024
Pages from Gert's book
It was a great pleasure for me to be able to write about my...
Gert Fortgens | Feb 15, 2024

Plant Focus

Quercus crassipes acorns with inrolled cupule margin
One of the more well-known Mexican oaks in cultivation.

Denmark's Navy Oaks Repurposed

Massive tree-planting programs seem to be all the rage these days, as a way of saving the planet from climate change and global warming. But there was a time when trees, specifically oaks, were planted not to ward off warming but to wreak war. Before steel replaced wood in ship construction, oaks were in high demand to supply building material for naval fleets. And to provide the massive timbers required for large warships, the trees needed to be around 200 years old. So when such trees became scarce, European rulers rushed to plant oaks, convinced that, while the best time to plant an oak was 200 years ago, the next best time was now, i.e., then. Alas, shipbuilding technology outpaced the oaks: by the time the trees matured steel was supreme, and there was no need to make wooden warships. The oaks still stand, forming large forests of high-quality timber. France has its Forêt de Bercé (visited by the IOS as part of the Pre-Conference Tour in 2012), which has provided beams to reconstruct the spire of Notre-Dame Cathedral; Sweden the oak forest on the island of Visingsö, where about 300,000 oaks were planted in the 1830s; the UK has its Trafalgar Oaks planted at the bidding of Lord Nelson; even the U.S. has a Naval Live Oaks Reservation in Florida originally intended for shipbuilding.

The fleet is leaving the port for the last time
Christian Mølsted's "The Fleet Leaves the Port the Last Time" (1919) shows Danish sailors watching their ships being removed by the British on October 21, 1807.

In the case of Denmark, the story is dramatic. During the Battle of Copenhagen of 1807, British naval forces bombarded the town, forcing its surrender. Then the whole of the Danish navy was seized and the citizens of Copenhagen had to stand and watch as the British sailed away with their ships, which constituted an estimated 90,000 mature oak trees (each ship used up an average 2,000 oaks). Crown Prince Frederick VI, then regent, needed to rebuild the navy from the acorns up. He declared a ban on felling oak trees, proclaimed all oaks, felled or hale, property of the crown, and started planting oaks like there was no tomorrow—knowing that the oaks in fact needed some 73,000 tomorrows before they could float his descendants’ boats.

Oak trunks cleaved by hand
Oak trunks cleaved using traditional methods for the reconstruction of a Viking ship - Photo: Vikingeskibsmuseet

The story goes that early this century Queen Margrethe II got a call from the Royal Forestry Commissioner of Denmark informing her that finally her ship had come in and the oaks were ripe for the picking. This seems to be an urban myth, but it is certainly true that some 16,000 oaks planted in North Zealand, an area north of Copenhagen, and others planted in other Danish woodlands, offer some outstanding oak timber. They are known as flådeege (“fleet oaks” or “navy oaks”), and they are now being put to some interesting uses. Some are close to the original purpose, such as the restoration of a historic battle ship, Fregatten Jylland, now a museum and tourist attraction, or the reconstruction of a Viking ship from the 11th century, which involved cleaving the huge oak logs with mallets, wedges, and axes. A project to use a sailing ship for environmentally friendly maritime transport also used timber from the navy oaks to restore their vessel. Operagoers in Copenhagen wanting to get to the modern opera house on the island of Holmen do so by crossing bridges built with beams milled from the navy oaks (the island was the site of the port from where the Danish ships were stolen in 1807). You can even order a dining table made from these oaks.

1960 presidential debate
Hans Wegner's stylish chairs were featured when John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon debated live on TV, September 26, 1960 - Chicago Tribune file photo

But perhaps the most remarkable use the oaks have been put to is the construction of 150 chairs. Known simply Den Runde Stol (The Round Chair1), Hans Wegner’s simple and stylish design is one of the most famous pieces of Danish furniture (and there is plenty of competition). It became an international hit soon after it was launched in 1950 and ten years later it supported both candidates in the first presidential debate between Nixon and JFK. The firm PP Møbler acquired some navy oaks that were felled in Grænge Skov forest, on the island of Lolland, to the south of Copenhagen, and set at them with modern machinery and artisanship to mill, saw, turn, sandpaper, and polish the pieces that were then spliced together to form these iconic chairs. If you have a quarter of an hour to spare, you could do worse than follow the whole meticulous process in the video below (narrated in Danish, with English subtitles):

1 In the U.S. it is known as “The Chair” and in the U.K. as “The Classic Chair”.