From Acorns to Oak Trees

 
February 21, 2012
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The process of growing trees from seed always amazes me. In the fall as I collect the different types of acorns off the ground they seem so unassuming; just the litter from oak trees that many people complain about. I have to watch the trees for that exact right day or two that I can convince the squirrels to share as they dart through the canopy chattering their annoyance with me as their movements send more acorns to the ground.

Before acorns are formed, catkins must do the work of gene exchange.
Before acorns are formed, catkins must do the work of gene exchange.

Rain, wind, and waterfowl also play key rolls in my collection schedule. If I wait one day too long after a good wind to go to a site to collect, I may have given the whole crop to the geese.

Different species of oaks have very different sizes and shapes of acorns, all beautiful in my opinion, but requiring some creative collection techniques. Raking and scooping has been a standby for years, as has stooping and picking, but as the human seed collectors age and the number of acorns needed has increased, we have strived to become less labor intensive and more efficient. Enter ‘The Nut Wizard”! This simple and ingenious gadget was discovered on the Internet by Kelsay a few years ago and has become as indispensable as bags, buckets and bug spray to my seed collecting kit.

Rolling this magical basket across the ground rather than stooping or crawling has been a boon for my knees and back and the amount of time it saves back at the nursery is amazing. No more hours of separating the trash from the acorns that we raked up.

Here you see the progression from acorn to seedling.
Here you see the progression from acorn to seedling.

So now we have acorns, lots and lots of acorns: acorns from the white oak group and acorns from the red oak group all having slightly different quirks and requirements. When to stratify? How to stratify? They all need some treatment to break their dormancy so they will germinate for the next spring. This is where the learning curve never ends. As a rule, the red oak group is like the teachers pet; obedient, well behaved and polite- they do as they’re told and wait their turn. I plant them into our wooden seed flats as soon as I collect them, tag the flat, stack them on a pallet and leave them outside under the shade of the Hackberry until it’s time to spend the winter in the seed house. No back talk, I like that about them.

But every group has the troublemakers, class clowns, and bullies. I am not sure which category the white oak group should be slotted into, I think it depends a lot on the type of weather we have in the fall. They tend to want to poke their radicles out before we even plant them and stick their nosy heads out of the soil if the weather stays a little too warm.

Here is a close-up of a germinating acorn. This one is producing more than one stem and will need to be clipped.
Here is a close-up of a germinating acorn. This one is producing more than one stem and will need to be clipped.

This pushy personality makes it challenging to store them over the winter without smashing their little heads between the flats. Ideally, we want cold nights and cool days all through fall with a good freeze by early November and then nights that stay below freezing until early spring. If only I could put in a request for that every year and it would come true! But I need a challenge and job security—if it was easy and predictable, anyone could do it. So I have tried a lot of experiments. Some ideas came from Connor of course, with his decades of experience you would think he would have the exact recipe all figured out, but the perfect answer one year is not the perfect answer the next. Refrigerate? Store outside longer? Stack right away, don’t stack until the Sandhill Cranes arrive and the mice move in the seed house? We have tried them all with some great successes and total failures. It’s an ongoing dilemma, if I ever figure it out I will probably quit and go into another field because then this job would get boring!

So winter starts and all our oaks, white and red, get stacked into their acorn condos and go into the seed house to hopefully sleep off their attitude for spring germination.

—LLV.

Check back later for the next chapter: Out of the Seed House into the Greenhouse.