What’s the Word?

This spongy, porous, buoyant material has been around for as far back as we can remember, dating back as early as 3000 BC when it was used by China, Egypt, Babylon and Persia.

Today, we find it in locations as discrete as a message board inside a high school locker to the wine stopper in a premier bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon. We herald the mighty word in everyday idioms when insisting that a friend (or foe) “Put a put a cork in it,” and amuse ourselves with the temper of our fellow man when we claim someone has, “popped their…well, you know.” Meriam Webster even defines a corker as one who is excellent or remarkable.

There’s no doubt this remarkable material has weaved its age-old thread through the fabric of countless generations. But have you every really pondered this spongy phenomenon? Where does it come from? Is it natural or man-made?

Quercus Suber

In case you were wondering, Quercus Suber isn’t the latest model crossover vehicle or a futuristic space shuttle. Rather, it’s the genus and species better known as the cork oak tree. Yes, there truly is a tree of the same name.

As a matter of fact, there are over 2,200,000 hectares (one hectare equals 100 acres) worldwide of oak forests sitting on almost 8,500 square miles of land. These forests grow primarily in the southern European countries of Portugal, Spain, France, and Italy as well as Northern African countries of Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria.

If it Comes from a Tree, it has to be wood, right?

The wood we use to build homes, playgrounds, sheds, and tree-forts is sourced from many different types of trees–ash, pine, maple, and mahogany to name a few. Processing of this lumbar includes many steps beginning first with falling (or cutting down)the tree. Then comes head rigging, edging, trimming, rough lumber sorting, stickering, drying, planning, and then grading. (Oh my!)

One very unique quality about this material that sets it apart from other lumbar initiates at the very beginning of processing. To start with, the Quercus Suber tree itself is left rooted in the ground with no falling necessary. It’s true! This sustainable resource leaves the precious Quercus Suber alive and well.

Secondly, unlike other these other woods whose strength lies beneath the bark, our porous material is actually derived from the outer layer of the tree, the phellem. Not only that, but the mighty Quercus Suber can actually regrow this bark after it has been harvested off the tree. Therefore, processing begins by simply peeling the bark from the tree, sometimes by hand, sometimes using a hand-axe, but always meticulously and by experienced tree strippers.

How’s the bark processed?

After the bark has been stripped from the trees and allowed to dry, the planks are boiled to soften and clean them. After this, plugs are punched out from the phellem for premier wine bottle stoppers.

The remains of the each plank are then ground into granules. These fragments are then glued together to produce agglomerate material which will be used in corkboard, fishing bobbers and fashionable sandals, as well as a some unexpected place like paper pickup mechanism in printers to the heat shield in spacecraft.

A House made of phellem?

Because of its porous, pliable consistency it would not seem prudent to build house with this material. However, our friendly phellem is now teaming up with the tiny house movement. These homes aren’t flimsy doll houses, either. Apparently, they are constructed to withstand even a category-five hurricane.

In addition, the popularity of phellem-derived floors has increased as we search for more eco-friendly, sustainable materials to use in the modern culture. Because this flooring is filled with millions of tiny air chambers, it feels great on your feet and acts as natural insulator against heat and cold, assisting with energy management.

Piece de Resistance

Finally, you must take a look at the Portugal pavilion for the 2000 World Expo. It will blow your phellem. With Portugal being the leader in production of this material, it only makes sense that they show off the mighty Quercus Suber, and they did, indeed. Go ahead. Take a look!

Also see:

Where Does Cork Come From?
What Are Cork Cells?
How to Make Cork
What Tree Does Cork come From?
Are Cork Trees Endangered?
What Country is the Leading Producer of Cork?
How is Cork Harvested?