People and plants: Cork oak

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If you are a wine drinker, have you ever thought about that cork wine stopper you remove before tasting it? Out of the blue, my husband asked me if I knew anything about cork the other day. I told him “no, I have never pondered cork.” This lead to an interesting discussion and today’s topic.

A particular oak tree (Quercus suber) commonly referred to as cork oak is host to many common uses. This tree is native to the Mediterranean region. In Portugal, where 50% of commercial cork is grown, cork oak is protected and cannot be cut down without permission from local authorities.

Cork oak is grown in warmer climates and, unfortunately, would not do well in our area. It’s a medium-sized evergreen that grows around 60 feet in height and lives for 200 or more years. Growers harvest the bark of the cork oak about every 10 years after the tree reaches the age of 25. The bark is carefully removed by hand so as to not damage the underlying tissue of the tree. Training to become a cork harvester lasts about eight years due to the amount of expertise required.

The bark of the cork oak tree has a unique cellular structure that is protected by a waxy and waterproof substance called suberin. This makes it ideal for securely closing bottles of wine, as well as for flotation devices, shoe insoles and gaskets. It was even used as building insulation at one point.

In addition to wine corks, the cork oak has been used as food, medicine, repellent and wood. The seeds are edible after cooking and have been used in making bread. The roasted seeds have been used as a coffee substitute. The cork oak “produces a strong astringent that is useful in treating hemorrhages, chronic diarrhea, dysentery” among other things. /

I am always fascinated by the number of ways nature is part of our daily lives. Right here, under our noses, and we don’t even give it a thought. This one tree species, Quercus suber, not only preserves wine, but is also used in musical instruments, building construction, sporting goods and a whole slew of interior home design and decoration. It is also a sustainable and renewable product.

Arianna Kelley Rawlsky has an M.S. in horticulture and is the director of Bringing People and Plants Together, an organization dedicated to bringing horticulture education and therapy to the community. For more information: or follow us on Facebook.