The cork tree, a broad-leaved evergreen, found throughout southwestern Europe and into northwestern Africa in Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, is actually a member of the oak family. Also called the cork oak, Quercus suber, is a unique and valuable species. The cork is actually produced beneath the thick, dark grey, knobby bark and harvesting does not necessarily damage the tree, as long as it is done correctly and timed right.
This tree regenerates its bark and the cambium beneath it (the cork), so once a tree reaches 25 years of age the cork can be harvested once every 9 to 12 years without endangering the health of the tree. The cork oak tree can live up to 200 years, giving it the potential to be stripped 16 times.
Portugal is the world’s leader in cork production and so has the vastest reserves of cork oak trees. They happily cohabit forests with a diverse group of trees including other oak varieties, pines and olive trees. These forests are known for their great biodiversity, with 135 different plant species per square meter, plant diversity here is higher than many regions in the world. They also provide habitat for extensive wildlife including some critically endangered species such as the Iberian lynx, Barbary deer and Iberian imperial eagle.
Deforestation, climate change, fires and land use changes threaten cork trees and their inhabiting forests. Somewhat ironically, the change in material used to stopper wine bottles also threatens cork trees, when the demand goes down less is done to conserve and protect them.
Cork can be a versatile product and is used to contain olive oils, as flooring and even for footwear. When managed properly cork is a sustainable and renewable timber product. Additionally, cork oaks are vital to their ecosystem, they mitigate erosion, increase the absorption rate from precipitation and slow desertification. Interestingly a harvested cork oak absorbs 5 times more carbon dioxide than a virgin tree. This is due to the trees high CO2 requirements for bark regeneration; each year the managed cork oak forests capture 10 million tons of carbon dioxide.
Organizations like the Rainforest Alliance, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) work with communities and businesses to achieve FSC certification where possible, provide economically viable alternatives to forest destruction and help preserve and protect the health and survival of wildlife and their habitats. To learn more about preserving biodiversity visit: http://www.rainforest-alliance.org/about/biodiversity. For information about cork oak landscape projects being done by the WWF, visit: http://mediterranean.panda.org/about/forests/cork.