The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
Acorns were good until bread was found.
– Francis Bacon
It’s not surprising to read some news story about a troubling symptom of environmental malaise. But I was surprised to read a recent Washington Post story about the disappearance of acorns. As reported in Acorn Watchers Wonder What Happened to Crop (11/30/2008), Arlington County (VA) naturalist Rod Simmons observed an unprecedented absence of acorns and hickory nuts this fall. He was so alarmed he began quizzing his colleagues about the shortage. From Nova Scotia through New England and as far as the Midwest, the story was the same. No acorns!
And that’s what I found surprising. In fact, I had commented to a friend several weeks ago that Western North Carolina seemed to have an unusually abundant mast crop this year. The Washington Post article is a tad alarmist, raising concerns about climate change and starving squirrels. In fact , the fluctuations in acorn production are a normal, and by most measures, a desirable phenomenon.
It’s a well-known piece of Tar Heel folklore that when oaks have an especially heavy crop of acorns, it will be an especially cold winter. However, some people who've taken note of that indicator would tell you that acorns are a poor predictor of winter weather.
While browsing for more acorn facts, I found a discussion of the mast cycle and an interesting theory:
If oaks produced a consistently healthy crop of acorns every year, populations of nut-loving animals would rise to the point where all the acorns would be eaten no matter how numerous. None would remain to grow into mighty oaks.
This suggests the on again/off again cycle of acorn production is adaptive, ensuring the survival of the oaks. The same discussion mentions a long-standing symbiotic relationship between oaks and people:
Foresters and wildlife biologists are recommending that oak forests be managed to encourage new oak growth, which might involve prescribed burns and selected cutting.
"The idea of putting a fence around this and letting nature take its course isn't going to work for oaks," [Smithsonian scientist Bill] McShea says. "It's going to take active management."
Before Native Americans began burning forests, natural fires and periods of warmer, drier weather allowed oaks to survive. But paleoecological evidence suggests that oak forest really began to prosper and spread between 5,000 and 7,000 years ago, when Native Americans began burning regularly. . .
"This world here in the East is manmade," McShea says. "We made the forests where the forests are. We made the fields where the fields are. . .
"If the oak forest goes to maple and birch and yellow poplar, why does it matter? It matters because the wildlife that we enjoy in eastern forests, that whole vast community, is dependent on hard tree seeds, and that's been true for 10,000 years."
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