Getting Under the Skin of Cork Oaks

Let me tell you about a special tree native to the Mediterranean region. This tree, among other places, is abundant in the Sierra Espadán Natural Park and forms a vital role in its ecosystem. The tree I am talking about is my favourite one of all trees – the Cork Oak (Quercus Suber L).
Some of you may know it already, while others might be surprised by the fact that cork stoppers are made from the bark of this tree. In fact, one tree can create 4,000 wine bottle stoppers which allows the aging wine to subtly breath through the cork pores. This is a unique property of Cork Oaks, but it does not end there. Keep on reading to learn more interesting facts about this magnificent tree.

Cork Harvesting

One of the special characteristics of Cork Oaks is that their bark – the cork, can be harvested without causing damage to the tree. This process can only take place during summer from the end of May until August. However, it is essential that the cells responsible for the re-growth of its bark, maintain their activity and continue to divide themselves. This is only possible when there is plenty of water available in the plant. So, the tree must be well hydrated for any cork extraction to occur.

Cork Oaks have a long lifespan – about 200 years on average. Since these trees need time to develop and mature, it takes a long time to obtain cork from a newly planted tree. The first harvesting stage only takes place when the tree reaches 25 years of age and subsequent harvesting, that is not damaging to the tree’s development, can occur every 9 years. But only when the tree reaches 40 years of age, does the cork obtain the indispensable quality needed to produce cork stoppers. This means that only after a third stage of harvesting, farmers can obtain the quality cork they are looking for.

More info about harvesting at Corkor.com

The Resistance

It has taken over millions of years, but Cork Oaks have adapted to the Mediterranean climate very well. The Oak has another unique quality; its bark acts as an insulator in the event of forest fires. While many other trees would have to regenerate all the way from seed, Cork Oak branches quickly re-sprout and recompose the tree canopy. This quick regeneration is a big advantage (or a jump start) when recovering from a wildfire.
Another great characteristic of a Cork Oak is its resistance to droughts. During the summer months, these trees (as well as others) reduce their water losses through their leaves with the help of the stomata (pores) that control gas exchanges. Apart from that, the tree must maintain sufficient hydration. An extensive system of roots helps the tree achieve this through, not only their horizontal extension, but also by reaching several meters deep below the ground. This allows the extraction of water from subsoil and even from water tables.

Cork Oaks Habitat

Alentejo, Portugal
Cork Oaks are native to the Mediterranean region and require a specific ecosystem called “Dehesa” in Spanish (or Montado in Portugese). The reason I am mentioning the terms in these two languages is that most Cork Oaks grow in Portugal (32% of worldwide Cork Oak forests) and Spain (22%). And if we look at cork production, the numbers tilt towards Portugal even more, as more than half (52.5%) of all cork is produced in Portugal. Especially staggering is the fact that almost three quarters of Portugal’s Cork Oaks grow in just one region – Alentejo. Therefore, we can surely call Alentejo the corkiest place on Earth!

Almedíjar, Spain
With that in mind, there is a special area in the Valencian Community as well, which is known, for its abundance of Cork Oaks. The place I am talking about is the Natural Park of Sierra de Espadán. A great example of this type of ecosystem can be found right outside Almedíjar (Castellón). Specifically, the area predictably named La Dehesa is a great example of a Cork Oak forest.

The abundance of Cork Oaks found around Almedíjar has been put into good use long time ago. Back in the 19th century (since 1861) the industry in this small village was centered around the production of cork, and to this day we can find evidence of that from the cork potting plants that line some of the town streets, the deep red bark of freshly stripped trunks or the now abandoned ruins of the cork factory Masía Mosquera, which is easily accessible on foot and is a great reminder of the heavy influence of Cork Oaks on the lifestyle of the local people. Even though it was abandoned in 1960’s, you can still visit it and immerse yourself in the remnants of cork production with the help of several info panels that explain the importance of this factory back in the day.
More about Masía Mosquera – LaSurera.org

One more great fact about Almedíjar, it has an artisan cheese store – Queseria Artesana Los Corrales. Some of the finest cheeses in Spain are made here. If you couple this with the fact that there is also a small winery there – Alcovi Bodega, visiting Almedíjar becomes a must for hikers of all levels.

We are going to do the Cork Oak route very soon, so stay tuned for the updates on future hikes. Meanwhile, you can read about one of our past hikes that started from Almedíjar here – The Rocks of Cullera.


Source – Apcor.pt (From the Cork Oak to Cork. A Sustainable System)

Special thanks to Catherine Salsbury for inspiration and beautiful photos!

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