Campaigning for the Valonia oak

Thirteen years ago, when Iris Theodoridou and her husband bought a property in Kiourka, north of Athens, where there are still a number of the magnificent Valonia oaks (Quercus macrolepis) that were widespread throughout the woods that once covered Greece, they noticed that most of the trees were little more than stunted bushes, due to grazing by goats. After Theodoridou fenced in her own property, the oaks growing there began to shoot up, helped by judicious pruning of secondary branches. Some of the trees are now as high as 3 meters. «The older trees grow back faster as their root systems are already developed,» she explained. Concerned at the widespread destruction caused by grazing and fires, Iris Theodoridou has initiated a program to raise the public’s awareness of the value of these trees and is encouraging people with larger plots of land to grow more of them. With the support of the Hellenic Society for the Protection of Nature and the German association «Philadelphia,» Theodoridou this last winter organized the sowing of acorns on a 50-hectare plot on Pendeli made available with the help of the Erythraia municipality and the participation of members of Philadelphia and the Greek-German schools in Maroussi and Vrilissia. She has also been in contact with the municipality of Psachna, on the island of Evia, and a citizens’ firefighting association interested in sowing oaks there. Less combustible Theodoridou points to the many benefits of the Valonia oak, known in Greek as imeri velanidia, above all to the fact that it is drought-resistant and not as combustible as pine trees. Fire does not spread as quickly among oaks and the flames are more easily extinguished because the leaves and branches are not as dense as pine needles or those of bushes. Nor do they contain flammable resin, which is often found on the pine tree bark where it has been damaged. Fire always begins at ground level, where pine trees usually retain thick layers of dry pine needles among the fresh ones, as well as old pine cones which explode like flares, creating flames of at least 10-20 meters, and which are spread by wind from one treetop to another, even across highways. Pine trees grow very quickly during winter rains and acquire many new branches with pine needles, which they have to shed in summer in order to reduce leaf area and avoid excessive moisture loss. The oak, however, when planted in reforested areas that are not often watered, loses its first leaves around the end of May or early June, growing smaller and less dense summer leaves, a mechanism to adapt to the lack of water. In August therefore, there are no dry leaves on the ground in an oak forest and the acorns are still fresh, so there is less flammable material both at the tops of trees and on the ground at the most dangerous time for pine forests. Oaks also have deep roots that draw water from deeper layers of soil, allow rain water to reach underground water sources more easily and hold a thicker layer of soil stable. Valonia oak timber is of a higher quality than pine, useful for construction and the paper industry. Its charcoal does not produce as many harmful gases as resin, which produces carcinogens when burnt. The oak’s deep roots and broad shape make it resistant to storms. In winter, the bare branches are not buffeted so much by the wind and do not provide snow with enough surface to settle on, so they do not break easily. As oaks grow more slowly than pines, their timber is more stable. The acorns are a free, ecological and healthy winter fodder for animals, produced without fertilizers or sprays. All oaks have tannin in their bark and acorn cups, a substance used in diarrhea treatment for animals and humans. The tanning industry on the island of Kea was based on the tannin produced by the island’s oak forests, now replaced by chemical substances containing chromium, hazardous both in the leather manufacturing process itself and when the leather goods are eventually disposed of. Many doctors explain the rapid increase in cases of fungal infections of the foot on these chemicals. How to propagate the oaks The easiest way to propagate oak trees is by sowing acorns, gathered at the end of October or early November. Theodoridou recommends removing the acorn cups and painting them on all sides with minium (to protect them from rodents when planted). When the paint is dry, place the acorns in wet sand and and keep them in a cool place for up to three weeks. When they are well soaked, dig holes with an metal rod to a depth of 30-50 centimeters at low altitudes (up to 400 meters) where there is red earth. Fill the hole with soft soil, place an acorn in it and cover with about 2 cm of soil. They should be sown in November, to take advantage of whatever precipitation there is throughout the fall and winter. The quality of the acorns is also important. «Here on the Kiourka plain, there are many large oak trees in excellent condition with good quality acorns. In other parts of Attica, such as on the Mesogeia plain, the oaks have had a very tough time of it and the acorns are poor,» said Theodoridou. She recommends sowing acorns as a much more successful method of propagating oaks than planting seedlings. «Roots that have become established in a pot or plastic bag are restricted. When you plant a seed, it sends down roots that could be about 20 cm deep for a seedling that only protrudes 2 centimeters above ground. Oaks in particular send down roots very quickly, although they grow very slowly above ground,» she said. «That is one reason why people prefer pine trees; within 15 years you have a tree. Oaks need more patience, something that people usually don’t have much of.» Conference in Mesolongi The Technical Colleges (TEI) of Mesolongi and Lamia, along with the Friends of the Oak Association, are organizing a conference on oak forests on the campus of Mesolongi TEI on May 17 with the participation of a number of experts in the field who will discuss the value of oak forests and encourage ways to exploit them for the benefit of the national economy and for the purpose of environmental conservation. For further information, call Mesolongi TEI at 06310.58.362

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