Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Acorns du Jour

English oak acorns on a hundred year old quarter-sawn oak table.
... because I thought it would make a cool photo.
Some of these will be planted yet this fall and get their stratification (cold treatment) the old fashioned way, and some will be fridged for sowing in spring.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Accidental Balanophage: It Begins

Yesterday I became an avowed balanophage. I know, I know... try to contain your excitement. Or at least your confusion.

Balanophage is a term coined by restoration ecologist Dr. David Bainbridge meaning, literally, "acorn eater."

It is a term that could solve 99.3% of the world's problems (the exception being the Twins' starting pitching situation).

After gathering, cracking (or, more accurately, bribing my son to crack) and leeching (about 24 hours in water, changing the water every 4 hours or so, to leech out the tannins) bur oak acorns I have put them to use two ways. Yesterday, to the horror of my family, I sprinkled some crushed acorns into my blueberry pancake batter. Until my daughter demonstrated that it was possible, I never realized that the word "nasty" could have 4 syllables. They were delicious, and way more filling than regular pancakes. This morning I sprinkled some in my oatmeal. Just add the 1/4 cup of brown sugar (compressed with the approximate force of a auto crusher) I always need to make oatmeal edible and it was delicious... and kept me full, happy and productive all morning.

Another trip to the woods tonight to gather tomorrow's feast!

Precocious Little Tree

(Click on images to enlarge)

We're always told that if you plant an oak you can expect to wait 15 to 20 years before it begins to produce acorns. Somehow this little tree didn't get the memo!

On Friday I visited Knecht's Nursery here in Northfield, MN. Owner Leif Knecht showed me some young - very young, as in perhaps 2-3 years since grafting - hybrid oaks that are already bearing acorns! These trees are white oak / English oak crosses (Q. alba x robur). Notice the diameter of the trunk as compared to the size of the acorns and the diameter of the 5/8" bamboo support stake. Whenever somone mentions oaks as a potential human food or forage crop farmed on a commerical scale, the 15 to 20 year time lag is always mentioned - sometimes by the proponents of the idea themselves who reluctantly mention the time lag probably in an effort to prove that they are not complete head-in-the-clouds nut-jobs (luckily I have not such reservations!) - as a reason why the idea is not practical.

To which I say: Oh, really? True, the half dozen acorns on each of these trees hardly constitute a commerical crop, but given their early maturity and the fast growth we know oaks are capable of, is there any question that these trees will be pumping out significant volumes of acorns within a few years??


(Click on image to enlarge)
For those of you keeping score at home (and I'm sure that hundreds of people are), this English oak (Q. robur), planted as an acorn in a 1 gallon pot in early June, emerged from its 30 inch tree tube on Saturday Aug 22 at precisely 2:17:53 Central Daylight Time.
OK, so I'm being a little overly exact (also known as lying) on the time of day. But it was Saturday sometime (I couldn't convince my family to forgo a planned shopping trip up to the Twin Cities in order to set up a lawn chair and watch the tree emerge from the tube), and I took this photo Sunday afternoon. It's grown another 1/2 inch since then.
Nearly 32" of growth from an acorn, in a cool summer, in a semi-shaded spot in my yard. Slow growing oak indeed.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Myth of the Slow Growing Oak

(Click on image to enlarge)

Barely 2 months after planting English oak (Q. robur) acorns - not seedlings, but acorns - in 1 gallon pots and protecting with 30 inch tree tubes... after the 3rd coldest year in Minnesota history... they are now just 2 inches away from emerging from 30 inch tubes.

Guarantee they will be 5ft to 6ft tall by the end of next summer. So much for slow growing!

Monday, August 10, 2009

How To Kill An Oak Tree: Construction Damage

Like I always say, I can't stand to see people who are obviously trying to kill an oak tree doing a half-hearted job.

This gorgeous bur oak is located just south of my town of Northfield, MN on the future site of a brand new KFC. (Memo to city planners: We need a new KFC like we need a hole in the head. What we need is some good PIZZA. But I digress...)

Click on the image to enlarge. A token effort has been made not to disturb the soil under the tree, but as you can see the heavy equipment has been driving and grading well inside the drip line, and cement culverts are busily compacting the soil.

Obviously somone thought about protecting this tree. How much better it would have been if they had put up a perimeter fence 10 feet outside the drip line. How much better it would have been if they had consulted a qualified arborist to draft a simple tree preservation plan.

Because we know how this story ends. The new KFC will be built, and the tree will look fine. For a while. Then next year or the year after it will start showing signs of stress or die back. Then, 3 to 5 years from now the tree will be dead and someone will spend hundreds - or thousands - of dollars removing it (certainly a helluva lot more than it would have cost to have an arborist draft a protection plan). An no one will make the connection between the damage that happened during construction - the soil compaction, the re-grading - with the tree's death a few year later.

Oak Abuse Update

I recently blogged about my neighbor's gorgeous red oak trees, and a tree care company that committed the Cardinal Sin of pruning those oaks on May 22 - smack dab in the middle of the oak wilt danger zone.

I noticed some flagging about 3/4 of the way up the tree. Today I took this photo today from the middle of the street looking up (click to enlarge). I hope it's nothing but the die back sometimes common to mature oaks. I hope it's not the early warning signs of oak wilt. Red oaks usually succumb very quickly - within a matter of months or even weeks - while white oaks sometimes can survive longer before the fungus finally plugs all of the vascular tissue.

Please remember if a tree care "professional" ever offers to prune your oaks in April, May or June - don't let him anywhere near your trees, oaks or otherwise. He has no idea what he's doing.

Meanwhile, I'll keep crossing my fingers for this tree - especially because it's part of a row of at least eight mature red oaks that...

1. Have interlocking, grafted root systems that will spread oak will from tree to tree

2. Are too close together, and have too many impediments such as sidewalks, driveways and street in the way to allow for successful trenching with a vibratory plow to prevent the spread of the fungus from an infected tree to its neighbors.

Oak Gall du jour

Pink urchin gall on swamp white oak. Click on image to enlarge. Suitable for framing!

Oaks play host to more creatures than nearly any other tree genus. Galls are made by wasps as a home and food source for larvae. They rarely harm the host oak, and a single mature oak is, by midsummer, host to several different types of gall wasp, each producing its own distinctive gall.

Inside each is a labyrinth of safety and all the food the wasp larva(e) needs.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Amazing Jays

For a guy like me who has trouble finding my car in the parking lot of a mall, jays are amazing. Each year the average jay collects and buries more than 4,500 acorns, each acorn in a different spot, every one buried in good soil to the correct depth, every one covered by leaves, twigs or pebbles to discourage scavengers from raiding their cache.

So how many of those acorns does the jay find? About 1 in 4. That's a pretty amazing feat of memory on the part of the jay. They are highly skilled at using landmarks to find their caches. But it's an even better deal for the oaks! That means that 3 out of every 4 acorns buried by jays are not found, and while a significant portion of those will be found and eaten by various animals or succumb to infection or rot a much larger portion will germinate and grow (at least until the deer browse them).

What's more, jays make better oak planters than most humans. They don't plant acorns in the deep shade of the woods (where they would never thrive), because they'd also be very difficult to find again. They plant them along forest edges where the jays have landmarks to find them, and the new oaks get full sun but also get some shelter from the wind. They don't plant in compacted or wet soils, because they would be difficult to bury properly. In short, they plant oaks in exactly the places where they have the best chance to thrive.

William Bryant Logan says, "the fact is that the jays are the world's great cultivators of oak and a principal tool in the oak's spread and dominance."

Co-evolution is pretty cool.