Planting an acorn

It has been said that it’s old people who want to plant acorns. Which doesn’t make sense since oak trees take a long time to mature.

I had never considered planting an acorn until I read Douglas W. Tallamy’s book Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants. What sold me on the idea was a picture of a 5-year-old white oak tree grown from an acorn. A little girl is standing by the little oak tree to give an idea of its height.

Tallamy puts oaks first in their ability to support lepidoptera species. Caterpillars. Butterflies. Bird food. Oak trees support 534 species. Followed by willow, cherry, plum, birch, and many other native species that also support impressive numbers of caterpillars.

I was totally blown away. My property is much too small for a mature oak tree, which can grow to over 120′ both tall and wide. But that’s in maybe 100 years. Think of all the enjoyment that I and other people and native species insects and birds can get from a young white oak tree that’s growing a littler taller every year. Perhaps it will get cut down by developers when it’s 50 years old. Is that any reason not to enjoy it until that time–people and insects and birds. I think not.

I was ready to plant an acorn. A white oak acorn.

Tallamy gives some instructions about planting acorns. White oak acorns germinate days after they fall from the tree, whereas red oak acorns germinate the following spring. White oak acorns can be identified by a small root that grows out of a crack in the acorn in the fall. Red oak acorns stay whole. No cracks.

Walks with Daisy are excellent opportunities to observe nature. As fall progressed, we visited the oak trees in our surrounding area. I learned to tell a white oak by its distinctive leaf and would search the ground for acorns. One day not long after our quest began, I stopped under a beautiful big white oak tree, reached down, and picked up a perfect specimen of a germinated white oak acorn. The acorn had a small crack in one side, and a root about 1/2″ long was growing perpendicular to the acorn. I felt like Thoreau must have felt when he announced to his brother that he would now bend over and pick up an arrowhead. And he did. Amazing. Searching further, I found another acorn that had a germinated root, but the acorn was slightly crushed.

I took both home and planted them in a spot I had prepared, exactly in the middle of an open space where I wanted a little oak tree to grow. Tallamy warns that oak trees, with their long tap roots, resent being transplanted. I wanted to plant those acorns where I wanted them to grow for a century. One of them, at least.

I marked them carefully, put fencing around the area where they were planted, and waited for spring.

The crushed acorn never grew. The perfect one, however, put up a small stem in early spring, and then 2 perfect white oak leaves. There could be no mistake. Growing white oak trees from acorns was like falling off a log.

To make a sad story short, after I nurtured the little white oak tree through the spring and summer, one August morning I went out to find it cut off at ground level. It was inside a wire fencing. Nothing eaten. Pure vandalism.

At first, I was sure a meadow vole was the culprit. We were having problems with voles at that time. Later, I read that European starlings were known to cut off young vegetables like peppers, just for the heck of it. Since I dislike starlings, that was an easy theory to latch onto. Still later, it came to my attention that cutworms can destroy tender plants, but I haven’t had any other cutworm damage.

Well, at least, I thought, I can get another white oak acorn and start again. Daisy and I walked and walked. We looked and looked. Daisy likes to eat acorns, although they are not good for dogs, so she really was looking. We never found a white oak acorn.

I did some online research and discovered that white oak acorns deteriorate quickly after germination. Watching squirrels under the white oak trees where I was searching, I would venture a guess that white oak acorns are a particular prize for them in the fall. Blue jays also take acorns of all sorts away and bury them for the winter. When I plant acorns, I remind myself to think like a blue jay, or a squirrel, and bury them accordingly.

One of my sons lives in an area with red oaks. His dog was playing with an acorn one day and brought it inside with him. Knowing about my acorn search and thinking this was a good omen, my son gave me the acorn to plant. It’s a red oak acorn, not germinated, but I planted it along with several other red oak acorns.

The red oak is the state tree of New Jersey. It is a worthy tree to grow in its own right. So, we will see what this spring brings.

But I’m still planning to look for a white oak acorn, or two. The caterpillars need a white oak tree, and so do I.

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