Planting Acorns for the Future
“Planting nuts requires a vision for a future that goes beyond one’s mortal reach,” — Bernd Heinrich from The Trees in My Forest
Last fall I was presented with a gift of two 1-gallon plastic bags of red oak acorns. My sister-in-law Jamie had collected them from her lawn. She remembered my idea to plant acorns at my grandparent’s old farm property in New Hampshire and was happy to give them to me.
Readers of this column may remember last year was a heavy mast year, which is when oak trees, after several years of scant acorns, suddenly produce a huge number of nuts. We only have a single large oak in our backyard in Putnam, and while it did produce many acorns, it seemed the squirrels and blue jays gathered them before I could. I was happy to receive the gift of Jamie’s acorns, and on a warm October day ventured north to spread their seed onto my family’s forestland.
Many of us who have collected acorns know some of them are not viable and will not sprout an oak seedling. This is often due to the acorn weevil grub feeding on the inside of the acorn until autumn when the nut drops to the ground. The grub then bores a tiny 1/8-inch hole through which it escapes. The easiest way to determine which acorns are viable (other than looking at each one for the tiny hole) is to put them in a large bucket of water to see which float or sink. The floating acorns have been eaten by the weevil, and the ones that sink still have their precious cargo of future oak trees safe inside their shells. I was pleased to see most of Jamie’s acorns sink to the bottom of the bucket, leaving me with plenty to plant.
Our property in New Hampshire is mostly conifer trees with white pine and hemlock dominating the canopy. Part of the property has various species of deciduous trees with a mix of beech, cherry, yellow birch, red and sugar maple and red and some white oak.
Part of my fascination with growing oaks is due to a book I purchased in 2021 by Doug Tallamy called “The Nature of Oaks.” I knew the financial value of oaks as saw logs as they are the tree species bringing the highest price per board foot at the sawmill. What Tallamy made me realize is the significant value oaks bring to the ecosystem they occupy beyond their value in dollars. Oaks have been known to live hundreds of years if growing in the right conditions, but Tallamy opened my eyes to what that means for the many creatures living on and among them.
“During that impressive life span a singe tree will drop up to 3 million acorns and serve as a lifeline for countless creatures, including dozens of bird species, rodents, bears, raccoons, opossums, several butterflies, hundreds of moths, cynipid gall wasps and other predators and parasitoids, weevils, myriad spiders and dozens more species of arthropods, mollusks and annelids that depend on oak leaf litter for nourishment and protection.”
TLGV had the opportunity to interview Tallamy for our member magazine, In Touch, just before his book was published and he revealed that oaks are a keystone species and the first tree he planned to focus on because of their critical role in the ecosystem. They provide so much more in the way of habitat and nourishment beyond the impressive bounty of the acorns.
All of this was in my mind as I gathered my bucket of red oak acorns and a long, sharpened stick to make 1-inch holes in the soil and ventured forth into the forest. Much like the proverbial Johnny Appleseed, I planted hundreds of acorns. I focused my efforts where oaks were already growing and covered about a 25-acre parcel. Under my desk blotter I keep a saying I found in a fortune cookie. “From little acorns mighty oaks grow,” and I was determined to make this come true for our property.
The Bernd Heinrich quote at the top of this column from his book “The Trees in My Forest” sparked the idea to plant acorns on my family land in New Hampshire. The rest of the quote is: “If we envision ourselves as participants in the same grand, complex web of interactions as the forest, then planting acorns is like planting part of ourselves. The morality that comes from such a vision of ecosystem-as-life is a common thread that, if taught and encouraged, could unite all mankind.”
It is unlikely that I’ll live long enough to sit in the shade of an oak that I planted as single acorn in the fall of 2021, nonetheless I am comforted to know in the years to come, thousands of animals will benefit from that simple act of planting an acorn. Wednesday I returned to the 25-acre parcel and visited some of the locations where I planted Jamie’s oak acorns. I was so delighted to see several little red oak sprouts rising from the forest floor, their four newly unfurled green leaves reaching for the sun.
We live in a beautiful place called The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. I hope you’ll join me and together we’ll care for it, enjoy it and pass it on.
Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. He can be reached at 860-774-3300 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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