I was reading about yet another article on the cork versus screw cap debate – which I too have opined – when a comment about one particular cork tree producing 100,000 corks in a year, caught my interest. I had heard about the oldest cork tree but didn’t pay close attention until now.
Amazingly, the oldest known cork oak tree is called the ‘Whistler Tree’ and does indeed produced that much cork … and more.
A renewable resource and naturally biodegradable, cork comes from the bark of a particular evergreen oak (quercus suber) and has been used as wine stopping material for nearly five centuries – corking bottles to keep microorganisms from ruining wine. Western Mediterranean climate seems to benefit cork and as such, rows and rows of groves in places like Spain, Algeria and most notably Portugal have produced a vast majority of the somewhat spongy stuff.
That brings us to the Whistler Tree; the oldest recognized cork oak in the world. It is 231 years old, which is well beyond the age of most cork oaks lifetime. Typically, a cork tree lives about 200 years. The rich fertile region and stand the tree grows in is a vast open countryside called Alentejo with its characteristically warm dry Portuguese climate. More specifically, this particular forest of cork oaks is near the Sado River, not far from the countries capital city of Lisbon.
Cork is not harvested every year and in fact in younger trees, there’s a dozen years or so between harvests. Once they’re as old as the Whistler Tree, the dark grey cork is harvested every nine years; so, the next harvest will be in the summer of 2018. It should be noted, the thickness of the bark cut off is roughly two inches.
Its record-breaking haul happened in 1991 when well over a ton of bark was taken from the giant tree. The Whistler Tree’s haul in 1991 was as much as some cork oaks produce in a lifetime. It’s estimated that the famous tree will have produced over a million corks for a final tally. By the way, if you’re wondering why it’s called the Whistler Tree, it’s because of the hundreds of songbirds that use the tree as a home. Also, the reason they don’t cut above a certain height has to do with laws prohibiting the length that can be cut off.
One last tidbit, you may never have heard or even thought of. As a renewable resource, because cork oak trees are regularly harvested, the tree uses additional carbon for restoration of its bark over that of an unharvested oak.
So drink up and make sure you ‘pop’ that cork – you’re keeping our air cleaner.
Daryle W. Hier