The Cork Oak Connection
By Suzanne Radford
Published in Tomorrow magazine in the June 2020 edition.
A thermal barrier used by NASA, a liquid stopper since the times of Ancient Greece and the stuff of cricket balls, packed to their core. Who knew the bark of the cork oak tree could make such an impact and Portugal is home to the largest collection in the world, their forests protected by decrees dating back to the 12th century. It is also the world’s leader in providing 50 per cent of the global production of cork.
The Quercus suber grows up to 20 meters and come July, we will see around the hills of Monchique the number 0 on the bare trunk marking its year of harvest, the next one due in 2029. Cork can be a profitable business for landowners, and it’s good for the tree. Unlike others, the outer bark, the cork, regenerates so it’s a tree that keeps on giving if we are patient.
A single cork oak, which lives up to 200 years, can be harvested over 16 times. In the first 25 years it reaches a diameter of 70 cm (27 in) when the virgem ‘virgin cork’ is stripped or ‘desboia’ (unravels). This first round is poor in quality and has to be processed for production. After that, the cork is harvested every 9 years ‘secundaria’ or ‘reproduction cork’ the kind we see in flooring. The ‘amadia cork’ the one we pull from wine bottles is 40 – 50 years old, the time it takes to get the best properties for a wine stopper as the wine ‘breathes’ through the cork and ages. A single tree can cork 4,000 bottles with the corks lasting for 150 years, a natural solution perhaps to the plastic top alternative.
Bernhard and Monika Pable have a special connection to the tree which inspired them to use their creativity in making ornaments and jewellery all handmade from reclaimed natural materials. They came here 35 years ago from Austria and fell in love with the mountains and made Monchique their home and it is where they raised their two children. Monika explains, “when we first arrived we got to know our local neighbours and learned about their traditions, we watched as they cut the cork, an incredible thing to see”.
The art of harvesting cork has been passed down through generations. First, they tap the bark instinctively knowing where to make the first cut which is key to removing the cork casing in one piece and get the best price. Then the cork is stacked and stored for distribution and production.
Monika recalls the first time she saw the cork oaks, describing them as sculptures with bodies and bent arms. She was struck by the soft textured bark covering the hard russet colour of the tree inside. “Back then I remember the fonts had a ladle or spoon – ‘cuchara’ in Portuguese, made of cork hanging on a string, used to feed water to donkeys.”
Many of the old ways are lost but Monika and Bernhard continue to recycle the cork and the offcuts from the tree to make candle holders, plant pots, lamps and bowls and they run arts and crafts activities for children. Everything they do connects to nature and now their grandchildren’s imaginations are being captured by the trees, giving them names like people, the leaves evergreen, eye-shaped and fluttering in the breeze.
Another couple who love the tree and this region are Michael and Sheena from Written In Nature. When they moved to the Algarve from England, they saw the cork oak as a symbol of Portugal. Sheena says, “We started working with the cork oak after we came across a fallen tree, we were amazed by its hidden inner beauty and it inspired us. The first piece we created we painted the words, 'life's a journey, not a destination' and that saying still rings true to us today”.
Their passion and creativity lead them to inspire others and to bring the outside world indoors to enhance people’s homes and lives. They began making Little Corkers, a natural air freshener, using essential oils that emanate from the wood and have a therapeutic effect, they can be hung in the car, home or worn as a necklace.
They create bespoke signs for homes and businesses with mantras written on them or to use as frames for names and company logos. Sheena says, “No piece of wood is the same, each piece is as individual as each tree and as individual as we all are as people. If you wait long enough for nature to do its thing the centre 'cork oak wood' rots leaving just the cork sleeve and from the tube-like shape we make beautiful things”.
The bark, the wood, a water vessel so strong, resilient, standing tall providing fruit and shelter to wildlife is a protector of the environment and a provider to the community. So deserving it is of our respect and care, the tree that keeps on giving.
The article as it originally appeared: