The courtyard, as seen from the portcullis gate entrance in 1938, at left, and in 2012, at right. Photograph on right by Andrew Winslow
Visitors to The Cloisters may have spied the top of a large oak tree just above the wall at the postern gate entrance. This white oak grows in a courtyard enclosed by the ramparts, which also include maintenance passages, storage, an education workshop area, and garden workspaces.
Quercus alba, the white oak, is a common and long-lived North American hardwood. The bark gives the tree its name, though it is usually light gray rather than white. Oak timber is water resistant, strong, elastic, and dense, qualities that have led to a multitude of uses ranging from shipbuilding to supports for panel paintings (see “The Garden in Heraldry: The Great Oak of the Forest,” December 8, 2011). In addition to its timber, the oak’s bark is used in cork making, in tanning, and as a dyestuff. It also has several medicinal applications.
Oak apples were used in the preparation of iron gall ink throughout the Middle Ages. Acorns were the principal fodder for swine (and now for the ravening horde of Fort Tryon Park squirrels who breach our walls), and could be ground into meal to provide bread during times of famine (see “Pigs and Pannage,” November 13, 2009). The white oak has been considered sacred throughout history: the tree is identified with Zeus in Greek myth; it was venerated by the Druids; it symbolized the Norse thunder god, Thor; and it appears multiple times in the Bible. A subject undoubtedly best left for another post.
The genus Quercus includes a number of species, nearly five hundred of which can be found in the northern hemisphere alone. The common, or British, oak is widely distributed in Europe but is often considered an English tree. Oaks grow slowly and can reach a large size and girth. The Marton Oak, located in the English county of Cheshire, may be the oldest tree in England at the ripe old age of twelve hundred years. Measurements taken in the last two hundred years—before the tree trunk split—placed the tree’s girth at an impressive fifty-eight feet.
Construction photograph of the courtyard and ramparts. By the summer of 1935, much of the ramparts had been constructed, including the garage in the background, which was used as a workshop. Work had not yet begun on The Cloisters building proper, which now occupies the area in the left foreground of the photograph. The white oak, already a sizeable tree, is just within the walls, on the right.
Construction photos illustrate that the ramparts and courtyard at The Cloisters were built around several existing trees, the largest of which was the white oak. Only two trees were left once the building was completed; sadly, a red oak in the opposite corner was removed after it was irredeemably damaged in a summer storm. We are committed to keeping the remaining oak in good health and have devoted a good deal of time and effort to that end, especially over the past several years. The oak provides much-needed shade in the courtyard, where the cobblestones and dark, Manhattan Schist walls retain and reflect heat. Its loss would undoubtedly affect the climate of the courtyard, and by extension, at least some of the building itself. Selfishly, I would miss the view of this beautiful old tree from my office window.
Our white oak has several champions, including our horticulturists, consulting arborist, senior curator, and me. Our arborist has concentrated on exposing the root flare of this aged tree, removing girdling roots, widening the tree pit, and regularly pruning the canopy. She has given us the very cheerful news that the tree shows signs of new growth, although a girth comparable to its relative in Cheshire may be attained only long after we and the building have turned to dust. As difficult as it is to witness the removal of the tree’s stagheads—dead branches that resemble a stag’s horns—they are part of the natural aging process. The oak has now reached its maximum height and is retrenching to form a denser, smaller second canopy (learn more on the International Society of Arboriculture’s website). Continued pruning will promote crown growth.
The fourteenth-century botanist and Dominican friar, Henry Daniel, provided an explanation for the many names by which the oak was known, based upon whether it produced fruit or not.
Quercus, Ornus, Ilex, Robur major, Oak… Ornus is while it is young ere it bear his fruit: Quercus when he beareth his fruit and Ilex when he beareth no more, but seareth in his crop and in his branches… Robur when it is in his best liking…
—Friar Henry Daniel, Aaron Danielis
By Daniel’s reckoning, our oak clearly has a few more phases to go through, with the longest yet to come.
—Christina Alphonso, Administrator, The Cloisters
Grieve, Maude. A Modern Herbal. Reprint: New York: Dover Publications, 1931.
Harvey, John. Medieval Gardens. Beaverton, Oregon: Timber Press, 1981.