The Mighty Oak or Acorn? by Sara Wright

Most of us are familiar with the mythology around oak trees. They are considered oracular beings in many traditions. The Druids considered  them to be sacred, the Greeks associated oaks with Zeus –( patriarchy strikes as the ‘ king’ of trees). In Britain there was a goddess of oak trees….but in general oaks are considered to be male beings though they bear seeds and flowers on one tree.

 Mighty male trees ? Nothing could be further from the truth in terms of behavior because oaks are found all over the world and in this country they are what is considered to be a keystone species. What this means is that oaks support and nurture an incredible amount of animals, insects and birds. A ‘ Mother ‘Tree in every way. We have four species in this country, one of which clones itself and behaves like a bush. It is believed to be about 1300 years old ( found in the west).Throughout the world oaks are also considered to be keystone species.

The natural lifespan of an oak is about 900 years although few live that long. Oaks, even as tiny seedlings support insects that birds need to survive. Moths in particular. Some butterflies, both in the larval stage. Most nestlings need insects for protein and fat. Many people don’t know that most birds are insectivores so without insects we will continue to lose more than the three billion birds that we have lost already. I recently learned that birds like chickadees, nuthatches, and titmice have a winter diet that combines the two – seeds and insects.

Most oak tree insects in the larval stage just sit there in oak branches. They have glycerine, a kind of antifreeze that allows them to survive even the harshest winters. In the fall acorns the seed capsules belonging to oaks support an incredible variety of woodland animals like turkeys, opposums, grouse, deer, bear, and of course, the squirrels to name just a few.

Other Birds love acorns too ! One of the most fascinating pieces of information I learned is that jays and oaks co – evolved about 60 million year ago forming a mutually beneficial relationship. Jays carry acorns a mile or more and bury them one by one in their home territories. In this way the jays of the world have been responsible for the spread of all oaks !

Oaks hang on to their leaves, some throughout the winter and when these leaves finally drop they purify the water of toxins and stabilize downpours that create flooding as a result of heavy summer rains. This detritus keeps oak roots moist and creates a habitat for earthworms and springtails as well as many other creatures we don’t see. Allowing the leaves to remain as mulch helps the tree and every other living creature associated with oaks and beyond…

Another advantage of having oaks is that you can plant them close to a house and not worry about tree damage. Oaks planted in good soil will develop a taproot and extensive underground root systems that will keep an oak upright in all but tornadoes. Better yet plant them in small groups ; oaks roots will intertwine making them even more stable. Besides, oaks like their own company !They also develop mycorrhizal relationships with white pines. If you have small yard you can plant an oak that will not tower over your property! There are a number of little oaks, one that will produce acorns when five feet tall. Oaks are both disease and drought  resistant which is a huge advantage with global warming increasing the temperatures at an unprecedented rate leaving many trees in dire situations.

Most oaks begin to produce acorns by the time they are twenty years old, but please do not buy big trees. Start with a seedling or better yet an acorn. Oaks are fast growing and they will reward you for your patience by developing into healthy long lived trees.

When I first moved to the mountains I noted that the one tree I was  missing from my property was the oak and because I planted flowers, trees,herbs, wildflowers for all for the birds and animals I decided that I would plant some acorns. I did this for a couple of  years in the fall by direct seeding into the ground with no results. Disappointed, I assumed the soil might be the problem.

Then about ten years ago I noticed some giant red oak leaves drifting to the ground in late fall.(Quercus is the genus of all oaks). Where had they come from ? A few birches came down and that’s when I noticed young red oak trees appearing next to the pine trees. I had oaks at last ! As previously mentioned I now know that the bluejays brought them. Bluejays sometimes annoyed me with their raucous chatter but no more. Now whenever I see one I offer a thank you from my heart.

And each spring I join the jays, careful to pick up only the acorns that have no holes in them. If the weevils have gotten in the acorn will not sprout. I find my acorns along the side of the road and sometimes it is possible to pick one up that has already split. I start looking in April and as soon as I find viable seed capsules I soak them in wet towels for a day or so until the white root is visible. Then I plant them in clay pots to be put into the ground by early fall. Don’t be discouraged if you see only two leaves emerge that first year ; this is normal. The root is ten times the size of the emerging twig. All the growth is occurring underground. Burgeoning roots will eventually store an immense amount of carbon, safely and for a very long time. A wire cage will help keep seedlings safe from deer and other browsers, and because oaks are fast growing you will have a real tree in a very few years.

The ‘experts’ tell us to gather acorns in the fall, but I did that and no seedlings emerged. So I wait for spring to forage and have not had a problem germinating red oak seedlings. Apparently white oaks – the elipitical ones – take 18 months to germinate, while red oaks ( round) only take a year. The cluster of white oaks I planted here a few years ago I also picked up and grew in the spring so perhaps I was just lucky. This April when I go in search of my acorns I’ll try to plant white oaks again to see if they germinate. White oaks are less common around here.

My hope is that this article will encourage the gardener and forager (and as women we come from an ancient foraging and seeding lineage) to think about planting an acorn or a seedling oak tree for personal reasons and to help us all !

Author: Sara Wright

I am a writer and naturalist who lives in a little log cabin by a brook with my two dogs and a ring necked dove named Lily B. I write a naturalist column for a local paper and also publish essays, poems and prose in a number of other publications.

9 thoughts on “The Mighty Oak or Acorn? by Sara Wright”

  1. I live among many sacred Oaks, six magnificent Grandmother trees encircle my home. I have been in a deepening intimate relationship with these trees for eighteen years now. As I have closely observed, I have come to understand that Oaks truly are the Mothers. While they do have male flowers, once fertilization of the ovary of the female flower has taken place, the Oaks, in their wisdom, release those no longer needed parts, much like the females of many species, from insects to mammals, go on to mother with no need of their male counterparts.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for all this information about oaks! I really love how you show how just planting one tree, or better yet a few!, can make such a difference in the ecosystem of a backyard, or garden, or forest. This is a wonderful illustration of how interconnected all life is and how we have to be so careful when we interfere. I do think that oaks and people have a special relationship. There are some oaks towering over a river where I usually walk and so often I hear people commenting about them and appreciating them. Thanks again for sharing all your research on oaks with us!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. oh I am delighted that you enjoyed the article…and yes planting even one oak can make a difference, and besides it’s so much fun to watch them grow. My littlest ones are safely buried under snow…and when I planted them I was fully aware that what I was doing might affect generations to come… a good feeling, that.There is something about planting wild seeds….

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Oak trees are magnificent. In New Orleans, where I grew up, there’s a park called City Park which is full of huge old oaks. Here in New Mexico we have small oaks called Scrub Oak. I mainly see them in the mountains so I’m not sure if one would grow here in ABQ. I’ll have to inquire at my local gardening shop and if so I’d love to plant one.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Judith, having spent a lot of time in NM I am familiar with the scrub oaks that I saw in the mountains – there must be some oak that you could grow – a garden center would know – these trees help so many…however watering might be necessary??? There in lies the rub.


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