Palestine Oak (Kermes Oak)
Quercus calliprinos Webb. (Q. coccifera)
Palestine oak is an evergreen tree that can live for hundreds of years. Its height can reach fifteen metres, and its trunk’s diameter can extend to two metres. It has small, tough, alternate leaves with spiny edges. The leaves remain on the tree for two or three years before falling, and do not all fall at the same time.
Oaks are monoecious. The male flowers form in clusters, and their pollen is transported by the wind to the female flowers, which exist as solitary or in pairs on the axils of young leaves formed on young twigs. The oak tree blooms in March and April. The grey fruit takes a year to form into a round nut with a diameter of a few millimetres, reaching full maturity in autumn. It then turns into a bitter, brown fruit inside a green capsule.
Oaks are widespread in Palestine, especially in the mountains of the Galilee, Carmel, Nablus, and Hebron. There are around five varieties of oak in Palestine, two of which are deciduous: mall (Q. ithaburensis) and mallul or a’bbass (Q. boissieri).
Oak wood is hard, and is used for making handles for farming tools, beams for ploughs, and yokes for cattle. Its bark is used in tanning because of its tannin content. This bark is called nujob and the person who strips it is called najjab. During Ottoman rule, people were sometimes forced to tan goat-skins to carry water for the army. An insect that lives on oak leaves secretes a red dye, which was used in dyeing. This is where the term kermes (red) comes from. In times of famine, such as during World War I, oak fruit was roasted and eaten despite its bitter taste.
In Palestine, some oak trees are regarded as sacred. People visit these trees and hang ribbons and talismans on them. Many of these oak trees are located near shrines and the graves of holy men. It was forbidden to cut the trees down because folk believed they were inhabited by good spirits. It should be remembered that in folklore, oak competes in holiness with the terebinth tree (Pistacia palaestina) because both are presumed to be the prophet Abraham’s trees (recall the prophet Abraham’s oak tree in Hebron). Mediterranean hackberry (Celtis australis) and pomegranate are also sacred trees in Palestinian tradition. People believed that evil spirits could not inhabit them, so it was safe to sleep beneath these trees. On the other hand, Christ’s thorn jujube (Ziziphus spina-christi), fig, carob, and sycamore trees were thought to be inhabited by evil spirits, so one was cautioned against sleeping under them. In keeping with these beliefs, the young, blood-red carob branches were regarded as inauspicious or a bad omen.
Source: A Garden Among the Hills: The Floral Heritage of Palestine. © The Palestinian Museum 2019