Monday, January 27, 2014

Botanic Notables: Quintessentially Mediterranean Quercus

This oak bears truly unique bark for interest at eye level that's even better at night when uplighting creates shadows that bring out all the furrows and textures.

They're native to the Mediterranean, but for thousands of years Quercus suber, the cork oak has been an orchard tree in Spain and Portugal. It's easy to identify by the thick, deeply fissured, spongy bark which is the source of wine corks. The cork bark builds up over time to a layer up to a foot thick, then it's stripped away for harvest every ten years.

Cork Oak
The cork oak is an upright branching tree for plenty of room beneath for shelter and shade.

Cork is an adaptation to wildfire much like redwood tree bark resists burning. Unlike other oaks that resprout from the root after the tree burns, a cork oak canopy regenerates from the branches so it returns to beauty far sooner. These trees are also very tolerant of salt spray for a problem solver in coastal gardens.

There is no better tree to enhance the history and aesthetic of Mediterranean style gardens. Cork oak is a natural companion for olive trees and Italian cypress which share similar water demands.

very old cork oak
Specimens of very old cork oaks line the entry walk to the San Diego Botanical Garden, a legacy of foresight by the original owners of the property.

This is a fine shade or street tree, but it does not tolerate winters colder than 10ยบ F or USDA Zone 8. They prefer well drained soil and are tolerant of a long dry season. This is a slower growing tree that rarely exceeds sixty feet tall and wide, its life span short for an oak at just 250 years. An old saying shared among growers attests to the growth rate which keeps it perpetually in bounds for urban landscapes. “Eucalyptus trees are for us, pine trees for our children, and cork trees are for our grandchildren.”

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