12 Facts About The Major Oak, Sherwood Forest

Major Oak, Sherwood Forest, with supports
Major Oak, July 2011

  • Britain’s biggest and most famous oak tree became the inaugural England’s Tree of the Year after a public vote organised by the Woodland Trust.
  • Technically, it’s a Quercus robur, an English or pedunculate oak. Pedunculate tells us that the acorns grow on a stalk, unlike those of Britain’s other native oak, Quercus petraea, which are stalkless (sessile).
  • The Major Oak is just one of almost 1,000 ancient oaks in Sherwood Forest.
  • It’s uncertain whether what we see now is a single tree or a group of saplings that have fused together.
  • Famously hollowed by fungi and bacteria, since the oak’s heartwood has rotted away, traditional methods can’t be used to date it. It’s no spring chicken: estimates range from 600+ to 1000+ years.
  • The Major Oak’s age and expansive canopy – it’s 28 metres (92 feet) wide – can be put down to its fortunate site in a clearing in Sherwood Forest which became a protected Royal hunting estate after the Norman Conquest in 1066.
  • Slow growing trees often live longest, so the fact that the acorn germinated on impoverished soil might have been another stroke of luck. The trunk’s girth has increased by a little over 1 cm per year from the 8.3 m (27ft 4in) recorded by Major Hayman Rooke in 1790 to its current 11 m (36 ft).
  • The oak has been fenced off for almost 50 years so that its many fans could not kill it through fervour by trampling around it, compacting the soil.
  • It wears the tree version of a corset: chains attached to steel bands were fitted to help support the canopy in 1908.
  • A succession of timber props supporting the heavy branches were updated by a metal framework earlier this century. The framework makes the tree look like a more stilted cousin of spacecraft in Henrique Alvim Corrêa’s illustrations for War of the Worlds.
  • Other historical names include the Cockpen Tree and Queen Oak. Major’s Oak (later Major Oak) came about when Major Hayman Rooke featured an illustration of the oak in his book about Sherwood Forest’s ancient trees. Major Oak Day is celebrated on his birthday, 20th February.
  • Legends help us imagine Robin Hood and his Merry Men dozing in its branches, but if the forest once had a real band who defended the common people from tyranny, they most likely slept in another tree.

Other facts and links

Check out nottinghamshire.gov.uk for lots more about the history of Sherwood Forest.

Action Oak is an initiative that brings together 30 different organisations to research the UK’s oak trees, monitor their health and spread the word about their importance and so protect them for future generations. The website features atmospheric pictures and outlines projects and ways to get involved, such as following them on social media.

It’s hard for us to grasp how oaks, particularly ancient ones such as the Major Oak, are hubs in our natural world. A recent study of birds, bryophytes (e.g. mosses and liverworts), invertebrates, fungi, lichens and mammals identified 2300 species that feed directly or indirectly on our two native British oaks (Quercus robur and Quercus petraea) or use them as a habitat for living, nesting or roosting. Researchers counted 38 bird species, 229 bryophytes, 108 fungi, 1178 invertebrates, 716 lichens and 31 mammals (excluding Merry Men). Of these, 326 are found only on oak and another 229 are rarely found on other tree species.

Credits for the research:
Mitchell, RJ, Bellamy, PE, Ellis, CJ, Hewison, RL, Hodgetts, NG, Iason, GR, Littlewood, NA Newey, S, Stockan, JA, Taylor, AFS. (2019) Collapsing foundations: the ecology of the British oak, implications of its decline and mitigation options. Biological Conservation. DOI 10.1016/j. biocon.2019.03.040

Shared for Becky’s TreeSquares. I’ve delved into my archives for this!

49 Replies to “12 Facts About The Major Oak, Sherwood Forest”

          1. I think I have four posts begun, and every one of them wilted on the writer’s vine. I get an idea and then cannot translate it into words. The muse is nowhere near. Thanks for asking — I hate it when this happens.

          2. I sympathise. I have a couple of drafts temporarily(?) abandoned too. If it is as hot with you as it is here, perhaps your muse is holidaying in cooler climate and will come back rested and refreshed. If your next poem is about icicles or polar bears, I’ll know why.

          3. My muse is more likely running from what Dan Antion (“No Facilities” WordPress blog) quoted today as “epidemiological stupidity.” The smoke from California and Oregon probably has sent her running too. Yes, the question is whether permanent abandonment or just a pause. I tend to think we will both come back to what we started and change everything but one brilliant word and write up a storm from there!

          4. Fingers crossed, we will. I think it might have been me who posted the quote! The fires in the US and floods in Europe and China are more than enough to disorientate any of us who are watching, let alone our muses.

          5. That was you? Please excuse my befuddlements! It’s such a good phrase but now I will remember who gave it to me. I guess our muses must be excused for this desertion. But not for much longer.

  1. Coast live oaks often grow with multiple trunks from multiple acorns stashed together by squirrels, but are generally recognizable as such by even the slightest of genetic variations. For example, one trunk may bloom sooner or later than the others. A trunk may exhibit more pendulous growth. I trunk may have slightly different foliar texture. English oak must not be so genetically variable. Heck, there are likely many coast live oaks with genetically distinct trunks that are not recognizable as such.
    Valley oak naturally lives for several centuries, and commonly gets as old as six centuries, although many do not last more than two. It is the biggest oak in North America, but like other oaks in California, is quite variable.

    1. That’s interesting, Tony. I’m not sure, but I was surprised to learn recently that all English elms are clones of a single tree. I love seeing live oaks, especially the old ones.

      1. What?! That does not sound possible. What you likely learned is that all trees of a particular cultivar are clones of a single tree. That is normal for every cultivar. If a single cultivar of the English elm is available, and all others were exterminated by Dutch elm disease, than they would all be clones of the same tree. Is that what you mean?

        1. Its status has changed over the years, but you’re right. Wikipedia lists 9 synonyms in chronological order, some species, some cultivars. It quotes Max Coleman as saying that genetic studies have shown that ‘the distinctive forms that Melville elevated to species and Richens lumped together as field elm are single clones, all genetically identical, that have been propagated by vegetative means… as the flowers are completely sterile… English elm [has] turned out to be single clones of field elm.’

          1. Okay, so I think I get it. English elm is actually a cultivar of field elm, rather than a distinct species (although described as such) and is sterile, so can only propagate vegetatively.

  2. what a wonderful post on the tree – a long time since I last saw it. Already remember the signs telling us how far away it was to walk and we seemed to get there in about quarter of the time they said it was!!

    Interesting about slow growing. I have two oak trees in pots at moment, grown from acorns. One is galloping away, but the other really taking its time. Maybe the second one will end up outlasting the first

      1. I know, must make sure when I finally plant them out they are somewhere where they are likely to be for the next 100 years

  3. There’s ‘just something’ about these venerable old trees. I do remember what a shock it was when I discovered Sherwood Forest was a real place, and not just part of a story. It’s delightful to see this example of what makes the forest so magical. As an aside, 1066 is one of the dates that stuck with me after high school world history. I have no idea why it stuck, but it did.

  4. What a fascinating post Susan. I’d have never known about this amazing tree otherwise. Wouldn’t it be fun to have a video of all the interesting things it has seen from the space around it? I can only imagine. I’m glad that it’s getting the respect and care that it deserves.

    1. Oh gosh – yes it would. I dare say we’d see that human history is not at the front of stage as much as we might think.

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