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Michael Eason hiking in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park to observe Washingtonia filifera in situ
Currently at San Antonio Botanic Garden, Michael's work has...
Amy Byrne | Feb 15, 2023
An exhibition that beautifully depicts and locates oaks
Roderick Cameron | Feb 09, 2023
Burke Oak Collection at New York Botanical Garden
The Coleman and Susan Burke Oak Collection at The New York...
Todd Forrest | Feb 08, 2023

Plant Focus

Quercus xjackiana acorns
The hybrid of Q. alba and Q. bicolor

Oaks in the Architecture

Tumbled amongst the stream-of-consciousness lyrics and Zulu rhythms of Paul Simon's album Graceland, the song “You can call me Al” sees "Angels in the architecture . . . Hallelujah!” Instead, and may I be forgiven, I see only oaks (Hallelujah!). But to start at the beginning: in the early summer, when the constant battle against weeds had us nearly to the point of insanity, we decided to escape for a couple of days southwards over the Pyrenees via the Somport Pass into what was the ancient County of Aragon, a Frankish Christian enclave which had led a precarious existence on the fringe of Moorish Spain since before the time of Charlemagne (the expanded Kingdom of Aragon came later). Our ostensible mission was to visit a white elephant of, well, truly elephantine proportions in the little village of Canfranc near the Franco-Spanish border: an ornate railway station 241 meters long which at the time of its construction in the 1920s was the second largest (to Leipzig) in Europe.

Canfranc station
Canfranc station

But as usual mission creep set in, and we found ourselves visiting in addition the old Royal Monastery of San Juan de la Peña, a 10th century foundation but with extant buildings dating from the 11th century, carved into a rather unstable-looking cliff of conglomerate rock.

San Juan de la Peña
The old monastery at San Juan de la Peña

Not unusually for a site of such age, various additions had been inserted, one of which was a 15th century confection in flamboyant Gothic style, the Chapel of San Victorian, festooned with oak and vine motifs. Two oak species occur in the surrounding woods: Quercus coccifera and Q. pubescens. One speculates whether the roburoid leaves of the carvings are taken “from life”, or whether the medieval stonemasons carried standard patterns around with them. A fire had subsequently arrested any further development on the original site, which instead continued further up the hill with a monolithic “New Monastery” constructed in the 17th century.

Arch detail San Juan
Detail of an arch in the Chapel of San Victorian
Arch San Victorian
The arch at the Chapel of San Victorian

The same month we set off for the June Oak Open Days in Yorkshire, and afterwards continued to meander around the county. No visit to the city of York itself would be complete without a visit to the Minster, seat of the second most important Archbishop in the Anglican Church. Our luck was to visit on a sunny day, and the cascade of light from the windowed heights of the nave in simulation of a heaven above was breathtaking. But almost more impressive was the Chapter House, an octagonal building where seven of the facets have deep stained-glass windows illuminating below them an extraordinarily fecund explosion of carving. Impish faces were mingled with oak leaves, acorns, animals, and much else.

Chapter House 7
Detail of a carving at the Chapter House in York Minster
Chapter House 5
Oak leaves, acorns, squirrels, and . . .?

One can imagine the stonemasons like naughty schoolboys daring one another to see how much they could get away with before the supervisor or the clergy intervened. Unfortunately my photographs don’t do them full justice, as my camera’s auto systems were having tantrums after knocking against the car door.

Chapter House 8
York Minster
Chapter House general
The Chapter House at York Minster

The archetypal “Green Man”—face or mouth sprouting foliage—insinuates himself into the architecture all over Europe and beyond. The image is certainly pre-Christian, and is taken to be a fertility figure symbolizing the rebirth of the year. He is not exclusively oaky, but may alternatively be found sprouting acanthus, vine, or hawthorn (Crataegus) instead. The magnified leaves of the latter in some representations can confusingly look similar to oak, so one has to check for acorns to be sure. I have a small collection of casts, amongst them an Oak Man and an imposter.

Green Man
Green Man: Acanthus or Crataegus?

Along with this new obsession of mine now comes a compulsion to score buildings on the oakiness of their carvings: normally I am rarely in the UK, but a conspiracy of circumstance this year had me visiting Chester Cathedral (marvelous woodcarving in the choir) and Westminster Abbey (a unique interior where every surface is covered with memorials to a British pantheon). But Chester’s oak score? Virtually zero. And Westminster’s? No better. So, hmm, in retrospect maybe I really did pass the point of insanity in June . . .

Chapter House 3
Oak leaves and acorns in a canopy above the seatings in the Chapter House of York Minster