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“Nature in the Little Finger Lakes” by Angela Cannon Crothers

Of Acorns and Oaks

By Angela Cannon Crothers

November 2015

I have a compulsion toward gathering acorns—oval and polished like water-worn stones, or greenish and round; they fill my pockets. Sometimes I collect just their scalloped brown caps. The later I put into jars for display or for use later in fairy house creations. The gathering urge is strong. I’m told it’s biological, because I am a woman, and women have always been gatherers.

During my teenage “Euell Gibbons” days, I gathered acorns from the white oak, painstakingly cracked them open, picked out the little meats, and then soaked them in a stocking in the creek for several days. Once I pulled them out and dried them, I ground the acorn nuts to make a fine meal to add to muffins. They had lost their tannic acids due to the heavy washing, but much of their sweetness as well.

Acorns can be consumed as is, but most are fairly bitter. Boiling the nut meats in several changes of water and then roasting them, with or without a sprinkle of sugar, creates a delicacy.

As a child, Thanksgiving at my house always included a wooden tray of assorted nuts in their shells: cashews, walnuts, pecans, and more, as well as two or three nutcrackers. We kids busied ourselves cracking and picking at the meats, a distraction while the adults busied themselves in the kitchen as the aroma of sweet potatoes, turkey, gravy, and stuffing competed with the richness of the meats at hand. Acorns were used only for decorating the Thanksgiving wreath.

Ethnobotanists have observed that some areas of the Amazon are so abundant with such a diversity of nut trees that they could only have occurred through intentional planting. Such prehistoric people planted trees as forage for future generations. Could our abundance of oak, walnut, hickory, and once, chestnut here in the Little Finger Lakes have something to do with indigenous people of long ago? Were they planting food for their children and grandchildren? Surely, these plantings were tailed after by other lovers of nuts—the squirrels.

Squirrels bury acorns in little holes called caches, here and there, throughout the fall for winter food supplies. Supposedly, squirrels don’t remember where they buried their nuts, no map is made, no real markers left. Squirrels find their nuts, or another squirrel’s buried treasure, by means of smell. I’ve read that a squirrel can smell a buried acorn a mile off. I have not observed it myself, but it would be fun to track.

Of course, oaks are pretty good at natural dispersal as well.

Acorns begin to drop in late August and continue ripening on the tree through December. Our main groups of oak in this area are the pointy, spine-tip lobed leaves of the red oak variety, which includes our common northern red oak, and the round lobed white oaks, which also include the bur oak and the chestnut oak. Most of the chestnut oak I find are at the higher elevations along south facing gorges like the one at the Wesley Hill Preserve in Honeoye. There are over 70 species of oaks just in North America. Oaks and our many other nut trees are considered mast, or food, for wildlife like deer, bear, turkey, blue jays, squirrels, and others.

Since ancient times the oak has been a symbol of courage, strength, and endurance, something its very wood is known for. Not surprisingly, the acorns themselves symbolize fertility.

While the deciduous leaves of the season now rest upon the ground, oaks carry theirs in a russet hue through the harshest months of winter. Oaks don’t shed like most trees, they hold on to their dry, raspy leaves for months. This tendency is termed “marcescence,” which means delayed leaf dropping. This may just be an evolutionary delay; oaks were once evergreen, like the live oak species down south, and so possibly the oak tree is still in the process of developing deciduous tendencies from an evergreen ancestry. The oak is still becoming.

I have always loved gathering acorns, and have equally loved the russet and burgundy auburn colors of oak leaves, their rustling in the wind in late fall on into wintertime. I once used to wish I had hair the color of winter oak leaves and searched for such dyes. And then, if I could not have such hair, that I might one day have a lovely daughter with locks the color of winter oak leaves, one who would wander the woods with me to gather acorn caps and other small delights.

And I do.

Editor’s Note: Angela Cannon Crothers is a naturalist and writer who teaches at Finger Lakes Community College and with The Finger Lakes Museum. Here are some columns that she has written about the Little Finger Lakes. Her columns also appear in the Lake Country Weekender newspaper.

Visit Angela’s website at: Angela Cannon Crothers

Read the Lake Country Weekender at: Lake Country Weekender