chestnut oak seedlingA chestnut oak seedling emerges from the sloughed remains of winter. A mighty good sight.

Chestnut oaks (and their cousins in the “white oak” group) send down roots in the fall, racing against rodents. Once rooted, the seedling can survive the predatory munchings of mice and chipmunks. When temperatures warm in the spring, leafy shoots emerge: hopeful bids for a place in the canopy decades hence.

Red oaks have a different germination strategy. They load their acorns with bitter tannins. A bite on one of these poisoned seeds puckers your mouth; swallow one and your gut clenches. White oaks are sweeter to the palate. Thus defended, the red oak waits out winter inside its protective coat, poking out a root when winter is finally done.

Shoots rise, roots descend. The growing season is underway.

12 thoughts on “Hatchling

  1. Madeleinecotts@gmail.com

    When I was a girl in middle school some 40 years ago, a friend and I read that the Iroquois used to make bread from acorns and decided to try it. The book said that white oak acorns were preferred, but we could only find a large quantity of red oak acorns, and so we gathered and used them. My friend came for a sleepover and we boiled the acorns for many hours in multiple changes of water, filling the house with an unpleasant acrid smell – blessings on my patient mother! We peeled a small amount with much effort, dried them out overnight, and in the morning ground them in a food mill and made a crumbly flatbread that tasted exactly like our dog’s biscuits.

    1. David George Haskell Post author

      Great story! I’ve also heard that leaving the acorns in running water for many days can help wash out the tannins. Even white oaks need a certain amount of soaking/boiling. My own acorn bread attempts have been similarly crunchy. I suspect that acorn bread with bear fat might be a lot more tasty — Native Americans hunted a lot of bear here. I’ll skip that part. The human-to-bear ratio has shifted in the last 200 yrs…

  2. Lucy Keeble

    How does one or can one plant an acorn to successfully “hatch” an oak tree in one’s yard?
    Thanks for the posting. I am walking with eyes wide-open and stepping carefully.

    1. David George Haskell Post author

      Approach #1: scatter acorns and see what happens.
      Approach #2: plant acorns in the fall in some flower pots — put the acorn about one inch down in the soil and lay some leaves over the top. Then keep the pots outside and wait until spring. You should get good germination success, especially if you keep the rodents away.

      Walking with open eyes and careful feet — we all need to heed your words.

  3. Tom Willey

    A Californian, I just returned from visiting son Mike who works in Warren Wilson College’s forest in Swananoa, N.C. On campus, where white oaks are maintained as individuals, these are massively spreading with photosynthetically active canopy on all sides down to ground level. In the competitive forest, however, specimens are pole-like, crowded in with other species obviously competing fiercely for solar resources. Not to second guess nature, but it seems rather innefficient to divide energy among so many competitors, none of which then express their true genetic potential. Were indians wisely burning the forests to keep them open, allowing for greater individual expression in trees than that we witness today? Thanks, Tom Willey

    1. David George Haskell Post author

      This is an interesting observation. Nature’s economy is full of examples like this — seeming wastefulness stemming from the tussle among individuals. But from that waste comes opportunity: half of the forest’s animals depend in some way or another on the dead and fallen wood that is the byproduct of this process. Chickadees, for example, prefer to nest in dead “pole” trees.


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