Our house stands in the midst of a small grove of mature oak trees. A family of white oaks and a family of willow oaks intermingle: more than a dozen of these giants share the little suburban forest on our property with many smaller post oak, holly, cedar, sweetgum, tupelo, maple, crepe myrtle, dogwood, and pine trees. Squirrels and songbirds, rabbits and deer frolic about under them. I’ve also seen a raccoon, chipmunks, and signs of moles underground. Owls and crows are regular visitors and there is a giant hawk’s nest in one of the white oaks in the front yard – she can be heard screaming there from time to time, terrorizing the smaller birds.
There are a couple of cultivated plots of grass but it doesn’t grow well in most of the yard. Moss, on the other hand, is everywhere, as are the mushrooms, a fascinating variety of which seem to bloom continuously throughout the growing seasons in the mulch and moss at the foot of the giant white oaks. A new crop appears after every rain – on any given day there are anywhere from dozens to hundreds of them scattered throughout the yard.
All of this diversity and abundance of life in a suburban lot has been a constant source of fascination. When I find or make time to be outside under the trees, it brings renewal to my awareness of the seasonal and cyclical processes of nature, and I remember my connection and belonging to it, and to the universe beyond our human world.
None of this prepared me for the acorn harvest.
Towards the end of September the white oaks began to drop their acorns, and what started seasonally enough gradually became a torrent and a storm of acorns raining down on the house, garden, driveway, tens of thousands of acorns, acorns everywhere. I have never seen so many acorns – and it is this same comment I have heard repeated many times by neighbors who walk by: “I’ve never seen so many!”
For more than two weeks, acorns falling from the trees that stand nearest to the house pelted the roof and the windows day and night. Pop! Rat-tat-tat! Every minute or two the short, sharp shocks would jolt our ears as the little brown nuts fell, skipped, bounced, and rolled to the ground. At all hours! It was constant. Oak trees drop their acorns at night as much as they do during the day. Some nights we would wake up in the wee hours to the little explosions as they fell directly overhead, or ricocheted off bedroom windows.
A Mast Year
2021 is a mast year, at least for the oaks in my yard, and for those in some of our neighbors’ yards. Mast are nuts, seeds, berries, fruit – produce from trees and other plants that make a large portion of what wildlife subsist upon. Oak trees produce acorns in “boom and bust cycles”, a mast year occurring every 2-5 years. Acorns can take more than a year to mature, and though oaks may produce some in intervening years, these crops pale in comparison to the volume produced in a mast year. According to every source I could find, a mature oak tree produces up to 10,000 acorns in a mast year.
The oaks in our little grove vary between 150 – 250 years old, based on estimates determined by their trunk diameters. These are mature trees, although they aren’t ancient – some oaks live for more than a thousand years! In the last few weeks our white oaks have dropped something like 100,000 acorns on our yard and driveway.
Few or no houses in our neighborhood have as many white oaks on their lots as we do. As I drove home yesterday I looked at the carefully (or in some cases, not so carefully) manicured lawns of our neighbors as I drove by. When I finally got home, I laughed out loud at how different the situation is in our yard: it’s astonishing.
I will never be able to pick them all up.
Many squirrels live in our yard, and every day I see them standing out there in the middle of all this plenty, standing on hind legs surrounded by acorns and holding one in both front paws, chowing down. I have never eaten acorns, as far as I know – not yet, although I admit now that I’ve been spending more time around them than ever before the thought has crossed my mind. Humans have been eating acorns for millennia – they were a staple food for ancient Greeks, Assyrians, Japanese, English, Native Americans. Dotorimuk (acorn jelly) and dotori guksu (acorn noodles) are popular dishes in contemporary Korean cuisine.
Acorns are a “true nut” – like chestnuts and hazelnuts, they contain both the fruit and seed of the plant in a hard shell. They’re nutritious and much lower in fat than many other nuts. However, acorns contain tannins, which taste bitter, are toxic if consumed in quantity, and interfere with human digestion. Tannins must be leached from acorns before they can be eaten by humans. The common, ancient method is to shell and grind them, then rinse the resulting acorn meal with water until all of the tannins are removed – a laborious process. This process produces acorn flour, which can then be used in a myriad variety of recipes.
The acorn harvest in our yard is in fact a huge food crop – if acorns were a staple for my household, we would have far more than enough acorns on our property this year to feed us through the winter.
As things lie, I’m hard-pressed right now to figure out how to get them up off the ground in the cultivated areas of the yard, and what to do with them. There are many methods for acorn harvesting or removal, but none of them seem to be quick or easy. Leaving them where they fall on the forest floor in the wooded part of our lot seems fine, but right now there are so many acorns covering the mulch beds, lawn, and pavement that when I walk across the yard it feels like the surface is covered with ball bearings. I’ve got to get as many of these nuts up as I can. Soon all of the leaves will come down, and then we’ll really have a mess on our hands.