Updated: Jul 9, 2019
2017/10/12 - Acorn edition
Stories keep us connected.
It is the season for gathering acorns and telling stories. A week and a half ago my wife, Flip, and I attended a talk by a member of the Kalapuya people, the tribe that has oral traditions that indicate they have inhabited these parts for at least 500 generations. David Harrelson told us Kalapuya tradition is that story telling begins with the first frost. He didn't mention a connection with story telling and acorn gathering and processing but since it is typically near the time first frost occurs I suspect there is a strong connection.
I will start with a little story of how a connection was made. Last Wednesday I was at the UPS distribution location to send a large box containing 9 species of seed (5 were different species of acorns) to Sheffield's Seed in Locke, NY. As the UPS clerk was filling out the shipping form I got a phone call from Rachel, one of my helpers, checking in as she got out of class, to see if I had found a local spot to harvest acorns. (I hadn't. The crop around here is spotty this year.) When the clerk finished the paperwork she started telling me she was going to be hosting a baby shower for her daughter. I didn't know the clerk and I was thinking to myself, "Why is she telling me this?". It turns out she was planning on using plastic acorns as table decorations at the shower and when she heard a mention of acorns in my phone conversation with Rachel she started wondering how much a bucket of real acorns might cost. I told her I had a bucket of cull acorns she could have for free. The next afternoon on my way to harvest Carex obnupta to help Laura of Jackson Bottom Wetlands with a big project I dropped off the cull acorns to the appreciative grandmother-to-be.
I am too busy to be taking the time to write this email but now I am coming closer to the part of this story that is compelling me to share. When I left the UPS site last Wednesday I headed south down I-5 to with hopes to harvest acorns at a Rest Area where I have done well collecting in the past. Even though the acorn crop is quite light around here (although good on a few scattered trees) the week before while on the way to harvest Spiraea douglasii (rose spiraea) for a large Nature Conservancy project I stopped to scout and saw the crop was good at a couple of my collecting spots in the vicinity of Elmira. I have been doing this long enough to know that if it was good in those spots it was most likely to be good at the Rest Area. (And it was. I got 10 gals there before I needed to head home for the visit of a longtime friend.)
I haven't been doing this long enough to figure out what it is that makes a crop good in a particular location one year and not in another. It is interesting that it is the same trees that will always have good crops in good years. There are many trees that have never had a crop in the many years I have been looking for acorns. Also individual trees have acorns of a characteristic size and shape that stays the same year to year. Between trees there is a wide range of sizes and shapes. From quite small (about the size of a marble) to quite large (the size of a ping pong ball) and from round or oblong to long and thin. On my spread sheet it shows that there are about 75 acorns per pound but that number can vary quite a bit depending on what particular trees the acorns came from. The buckets fill up much faster with bigger acorns but I try to pick up up all sizes and shapes knowing that different critters prefer different sizes. (I count on a full 5 gallon bucket yielding plus or minus 30 pounds of good acorns.)
I once helped a guy who was working on a PhD on an aspect of band tailed pigeons identify the seeds that came out of their crops. Hunters sent him the crops for his research. One thing he found was whole acorns in the crops of the birds. The large acorns will be of no use to the pigeons so I think of them when taking the time to pick up the smaller acorns feels like they are slowing me down.
At the Rest Area there is one tree in particular that has acorns with another interesting characteristic. These acorns have a beautiful reddish tinge to them before they turn brown. I attached a couple photos of the reddish acorns. Normally acorns turn from green to yellowish to brown as they mature but this tree has a pronounced reddish stage that I have only seen a hint of on a few other trees. The color doesn't last long so this year I took my camera with me to capture the color I have only been able to talk about before. The desire to share photos of these magic acorns with you is what led to this long report on acorns. Maybe even the photos won't do the trick and you need to hold these particular acorns in your hand.
What makes a Rest Area a good spot for acorn collecting is they are park like, often mowed and without lots of underbrush. Perfect for spotting acorns. (Well, perfect except for the occasional dog poop!) Farm fields are also good collecting spots as well as a large county park campground shaded with oak trees that shuts down in September I collect in. Jays will be competitors for the acorns at any spot and raccoons, mice and deer are competitors as well at many locations. Squirrels are the biggest consumers of acorns so finding a spot without them to collect is a big help. Ellen, who helps collect for me down in southern Oregon, says there are squirrels where she collects so she is out collecting as the acorns are falling out of the trees and she is sure the squirrels purposely drop acorns down on top of her.
One thing that comes with collecting in Rest Areas is the conversations with people that wonder what I am going to do with the acorns. Sometimes I look a little scruffy and maybe people think I am a homeless person so hungry I am gathering First People food rather than asking for handouts. That particular afternoon I had an enjoyable conversation with David, a guy about my age. We ended up sharing some fun stories with each other about long ago trips along the 1,000 mile gravel AlCan Highway when we were much younger. David left his email address stuck in my car door so I could share with him links on how to prepare acorns to eat them. If you are also interested in those links let me know and I will be happy to share them with you. Ellen makes some tasty food with the acorns she prepares and last week she wrote saying she had just been to an acorn class where she enjoyed meeting other acorn eaters. It does sound like a lot of work to prepare the acorns so if you would rather just buy an already prepared acorn snack check with Mighty Wild. If they can't help you at the moment get on their list for when they hit a year with a good crop.
Of course the reason I am collecting acorns is to supply nurseries so they can be grown into trees. I typically harvest the acorns picking them up off the ground. I take a pair of clippers with me to cut into a few acorns to help determine which ones are good and bad. Those that are bleached out are normally no good as well as ones that are black or dark at the cap end. If a dark one is questionable I can tell for sure it is no good by squeezing or pinching it. If it is soft or dentable I toss it away into the brush or across the road. Usually acorns off the ground that still have the caps attached are not good. But for occasional trees they will be good so If I'm not sure I will remove the cap and look to see if the cap end is dark colored or not. If it is dark colored the acorn gets tossed. (If the caps are on because squirrels have cut them down the acorns will be good.)
I don't worry about worm or grub exit holes in the acorns unless there are 3 or 4 exit holes or the exit holes is out the cap end of the acorn. Acorns are tough and they aren't usually damaged by the worms. If processing the acorns to eat them sounds like too much work you might instead consider eating the grubs or using them for fish bait. http://www.eattheweeds.com/acorn-grubs-baittrailside-nibble/ I used to eat ant larvae when I was doing trail work as a ranger and they were delicious.
Once I get home the way I cull out poor quality acorns that made it into the bucket is to fill a 5 gal bucket about 1/3 full with acorns and then fill the bucket with water. The light acorns float and I throw them into the chicken coop (even though about 30 percent or so of them would actually germinate). The acorns that sink are mostly all good (although if the harvesting is done following heavy rain more bad acorns will sink than when they are dry). I then put the acorns in front of a fan to dry them out and then drop them in front of a fan to blow off any grass or leaves before bagging them up to ship. If the acorns need to be stored awhile they should be kept in the refrigerator or they will start to sprout.
To plant an acorn, mimic nature and let them lie as they fall. Typically the acorns fall first and then they get blanketed by leaves and then the fall rains begin. The acorns are vulnerable to extreme cold so they do need some protection from that. When I had Sevenoaks Native Nursery I sowed the acorns pretty thickly on top of a tilled sand bed. I would then do a dance on top of the acorns to push them into the sand. Then a layer of compost was spread over them. We never lost any to cold weather with that protocol. We would lose them to jays and mice though so we used 1" X 4" lumber to make frames covered with 3/8" hardware cloth to protect the acorns from the jays and set mouse traps under the frames for the mice. We made the frames 4" tall to let the plants grow a bit before we took the frames away. If we moved the frames away too soon the jays would pull out the sprouting trees, going after what nutrition remained in the acorns.
Years ago while collecting acorns I noticed puffballs that would show up in the drip line of a particular white oak tree (with very distinctive long and thin acorns) year after year at the same time the acorns were dropping. When I was growing oak trees at Sevenoaks I would annually go to that tree and gather those puff balls. I would stir the spores into water and sprinkle the seedlings with the elixir figuring that I was maybe inoculating them with a mycological connection that would give them a boost. I can't say for sure it made any difference but it felt like it did.
Yesterday I harvested acorns at my campground collection spot. This spot has a combination of Quercus garryana (white oak) and Quercus kelloggii (black oak). Surprisingly the black oak doesn't grow much farther north into the Willamette Valley than here. It would be interesting to know why it isn't any further north. One reason may be that the trees very seldom have much of a crop on them. In fact this year they have the largest crop I have ever seen on them. (That was also true for some of the acorn species from southern California on my list.) From what I have heard and read, black oak were the prized species of acorn among the native tribes. It seems the critters prefer them as well. Ellen told me one time when she had a collection of 4 different kinds of acorns out in front of her house she noticed the jays and squirrels went first to the black oak acorns before the others. I am curious if the oral history of the Kalyapuyas makes mention of special years of great harvests for black oak acorns. I suspect a big year for black oak acorns (and the stories that went with it) were remembered.
All that to say, if you need acorns, let me know soon. I know where some are but they will need to be gathered quick before the critters get them or they sprout. My current list is attached so also let me know if you need anything else.
By the way I just tasted some grubs in the bottom of the buckets of the acorns that were collected yesterday. They are okay. A little chewy with a hint of sweetness. No real distinctive flavor. If you get a choice of acorn grubs or ant larvae I say go for the ant larvae. They taste like pine nuts.
Keep your eyes open for red. Sunrise, sunset, poison oak leaves this time of year and the occasional acorn. And take the time to tell a story. Stories keep us connected.
One more thing. At first I couldn't remember the name for Mighty Wild, the acorn crackers. I came across a band called Mighty Oaks looking for it.