What can live for 1,000 years, grow to a height of more than 20 metres, measure more than 10m round its base and be a home to thousands of other plants and animals? The answer is Quercus robur - the English or pedunculate oak tree. Druids have revered the oak tree for more than 2,000 years; place names with the word oak (or ock), and pub names such as the Royal Oak reflect trees of the past. One of the oldest oak trees in Britain is the Major Oak, which is reputed to be between 800 and 1,000 years old. A single mature oak can contain 300 different species of insect. It will shed 250,000 leaves each autumn - and that oak will have grown from a seed little bigger than a marble.
To celebrate its bicentenary, the Royal Horticultural Society - founded at a meeting on March 7, 1804 at Hatchard's bookshop in Piccadilly - is giving acorns to schools. During January, every one of the 2,000 schools in its School Membership Scheme will receive an acorn pack and instructions for germinating and growing them successfully. Membership of the scheme is free. Jacky Chave, senior education officer at the RHS, explains that "education has always been central to the RHS's charitable mission; gardening offers so much potential for teaching the national curriculum".
The acorns will be preconditioned to the point of germination, so any batch will have acorns at different stages of germinating. They will not be affected by the "sudden oak death" that has been threatening the countryside, in the way that Dutch elm disease did two decades ago. This affects red oaks, not those from the white oak family to which the English oak belongs.
Schools will be invited to enter project work inspired by oak trees in a nationwide competition for key stages 1 and 2, with a prize worth £500. A prize will also be offered to teachers who demonstrate creativity in their teaching. Pupils are asked to predict what the environment around their oak tree will be like in 200 years' time and how gardening will have changed.
The RHS owns four gardens nationally - Wisley in Surrey, Rosemoor in Devon, Hyde Hall in Essex and Harlow Carr in Yorkshire - and is building a dossier on oaks, which will include information ranging from myths about the species to the use of oak in construction. But the plan is also to ensure the future of the English oak and to "give every child the opportunity to grow plants".
To join the scheme, contact the education department, Bicentenary Competition, RHS Garden Wisley, Woking, Surrey GU23 6QB. For more on sudden oak death, visit the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs website at www.defra.gov.uk/news/latest/2003/phytophthora.htm
The great acorn hunt
Look for acorns under an oak tree in autumn. Take some Frisbees, or round plastic container tops, and skim them towards the tree - and see how many acorns you find under each landing place. Map them on to a sketch of the area. Where are most found? Can you explain why? Have they bounced or rolled?
The great acorn trap
Screw up some cloth - a J-cloth is ideal - and place it in the bottom of a washing-up bowl to cushion the bounce. Put the bowl under the tree and leave it for at least a week (tie or wire it to a post to keep it in place). After a week, see how many acorns you have caught. Try the trap in another place. How can you explain your results?
The great acorn escape
How do oak trees spread themselves? They don't have wings, like sycamore seeds. Acorns can't float away, like coconut seeds. They don't explode, like laburnum seeds, or hitch a lift on a passing animal like burdock seeds. They aren't shaken into the wind, like seeds from a poppy's "pepper-pot".
How do they travel far enough away from the parent tree to grow without competition? Some animals play a part in this. Squirrels are fond of acorns and are notorious for forgetting where they have buried them - though possibly they don't even try to remember and simply rely on scraping in appropriate spots where others may have buried a cache. But what if they are not dug up at all? What if an acorn doesn't get eaten? Even those that do may be able to germinate after passing through the gut of a squirrel.
The great acorn race
Which acorn will germinate first? And what do we mean by germination? Is it the process when the seed-case splits, the root emerges, or the shoots or leaves appear? You can follow these in order, using a digital camera or drawing pictures of each stage. Does it matter whether or not the acorn is in its "cup"?
Oak trees across the curriculum
* Art and design: observational drawing through the seasons; look at artists who use trees as a subject.
* D&T: investigate wood crafts, make wood products, cook with fruits and nuts.
* English: write poetry inspired by trees, research myths and legends and write newspaper articles related to trees.
* Geography: explore changes to the landscape over time, map the distribution of trees, survey and name the trees and wildlife in the school grounds.
* History: research the uses of timber, investigate history related to trees, devise a history-related time line of an old tree.
* Maths: measure trees, estimate their height and growth rate. Record their shadow length and direction. Calculate the area of the leaves.
* Science: study the parts of a plant, and investigate pollination, germination and growth, photosynthesis, pollution and air quality, adaptation, wildlife.
Starter questions and activities
* How does the soil affect the germination and growth of acorns?
* Can an acorn germinate in the dark?
* Can an acorn germinate without soil?
* How much water does a growing oak seedling need?
* How does temperature make a difference to germination and growth?
* How does using a plastic "greenhouse" - made by cutting the base off a plastic bottle and inverting it over a growing plant - make a difference to the growth rate?
* How does water rise up an oak tree? Explore how coloured water rises through a stick of celery. Put a stethoscope to the bark to hear the sap rising up a tree during spring.
* Explore leaf shapes. How have they adapted? Water runs off pointed waxy leaves; thin spiky leaves resist drying in hot countries.
* Collect leaf skeletons in the autumn and use them for printing. How many different shapes are there?
* Do leaves need light? Keep a plant in a cupboard and observe the changes.
Using foil, cover the leaf of a plant that's exposed to the sun and observe the colour changes.
* Sort seeds by shape. How are they distributed?
* Test-fly sycamore and ash seeds to see how they travel and how far.
* Grow seeds and record weekly changes by drawing, measuring and taking digital pictures. Assemble the digital pictures as a "slide show" so that the growth of the seed can be telescoped.
* Investigate whether plants grow to different sizes if different-sized containers are used.
* Take a walk among the trees. Evidence suggests that seeing trees reduces stress. A study of hospital patients found that those with a view of trees spent less time in hospital, required less nursing and had fewer complications.