Babes in the Woods

Mar 12, 2022 | Anita Sanchez

Acorns are all over the trails in fall, a thick car­pet on the autumn leaves. And then by spring they’ve van­ished. Where have they all dis­ap­peared to? Well, most are devoured by the aston­ish­ing diver­si­ty of wildlife that feeds on acorns. Like all nuts, acorns are remark­ably high in fats and pro­tein, vit­a­mins and min­er­als – a nutri­tion­al pow­er­house, per­fect for help­ing you make it through cold win­ter nights. Gray squir­rels eat acorns, of course. But that’s just the begin­ning. Wild turkeys are nuts for acorns. So are deer. So are blue jays, chip­munks, red fox­es, opos­sums, rac­coons, pileat­ed wood­peck­ers, red squir­rels, yel­low-bel­lied sap­suck­ers, acorn moth cater­pil­lars, mead­ow voles, white-foot­ed mice, fly­ing squir­rels, gray fox­es, mal­lard ducks, wood ducks, crow .… 

Whew! After that onslaught, it’s a won­der there are any acorns left to turn into trees.

To cope with the hordes of eager mouths wait­ing to devour their babies, oak trees use a strat­e­gy called preda­tor sati­a­tion. In some years, they pro­duce so many acorns that there’s a fight­ing chance that a few out of all those thou­sands might actu­al­ly germinate.

Great oaks from lit­tle acorns grow,” is a cliché, of course. (Accord­ing to the Oxford Dic­tio­nary of Quo­ta­tions, it’s been around since the Four­teenth Cen­tu­ry.) But how does the process work, exact­ly? How does a wee baby acorn turn into a three-hun­dred-year-old giant stretch­ing a hun­dred feet into the air, weigh­ing many tons?

The acorn, like any baby, may appear to be peace­ful­ly asleep, but inside, it’s churn­ing with life and growth. The acorn bides its time until con­di­tions of tem­per­a­ture and mois­ture are just right. Even though they look sim­i­lar, acorns of dif­fer­ent species do it dif­fer­ent­ly. White oak acorns will ger­mi­nate soon after they fall. Red oak acorns need a peri­od of dor­man­cy, a nap in the cold until spring rolls around. But when the right moment arrives, the embry­on­ic root tip thrusts through the acorn’s husk like a chick peck­ing its way out of an eggshell. 

We tend to think of young plants as striv­ing upwards to the sun. But at first, the oppo­site is true. The young root avoids light. It turns away from the sun­shine and tun­nels into the soil beneath it like a blind white snake, push­ing deep­er and deep­er. It starts to absorb mois­ture, and this water pow­ers the next step, the growth of the stem and leaves that seek the light.

Only a few acorns sprout, but most don’t sur­vive for long. They’re munched by cater­pil­lars, browsed by deer, weak­ened by fun­gi, stepped on by humans. But a few, a very few, sur­vive their per­ilous infan­cy. Slow grow­ers, oaks – they don’t do any­thing in a hur­ry. It may take years for the young­ster to grow ankle-high, then knee-high, then shoul­der-high. And then? The sky’s the limit.

So, the next time you see a hum­ble acorn on the trail, give it some respect. If it sur­vives the deer and the turkeys and the squir­rels, the bugs and the lawn­mow­ers and the fun­gus, it might be the one that turns into a mam­moth tree, a mag­nif­i­cent being that will long out­live you. You nev­er know which acorn will be the one to touch the sky. 

Ani­ta Sanchez, a long­time friend of the Arbore­tum and con­trib­u­tor to the Newslet­ter, is an award-win­ning author of books on nature for both chil­dren and adults. Hel­lo, Pud­dle” is her most recent book for young people.

Spring 2022

Volume 40 , Number 1

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