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Roy Lukes: The Mighty Oaks

I like to think there was rejoicing among the wild animals recently after the strong winds. My guess is that many tons of acorns were shaken to the ground in our county, there to be eaten by at least two dozen or more species of wild animal among the nearly 100 known to consume acorns on this continent.

Wood Ducks, Deer, Ruffed Grouse, Wild Turkeys, Blue Jays, Black Bears and Raccoons rank near the top of wild creatures using the delectable nuts of oaks as food. It’s not that acorns are the top priority food of these and other animals in the wild, but that this staple is so widespread and abundantly available in most years.

It wouldn’t take you very long to learn – just as wildlife, the American Indians and early settlers did – that acorns from White Oaks are far superior for eating than those obtained from Northern Red Oaks. Do you suppose that the meat of squirrels that ate White Oak acorns would be better tasting than squirrels that consumed mostly Red Oak acorns?

Red Oak acorns are quite bitter to the taste due to the rather high amount of tannin they contain. However, the tannin, being water soluble, can be quite readily leached out. Euell Gibbons, in his book Stalking the Wild Asparagus, refers to the acorn as “an ancient food of man,” and tells how to effectively remove tannin from Red Oak acorns and use them as food.

White Oak acorns are not bitter and can be eaten raw when they are ripe. No doubt you will prefer them roasted. A long time ago, when it was more customary to allow pigs to find their own food in the woods during certain seasons, it was said that, “Acorns are a delight to little children as well as pigs.”

Red oak leaf. roy lukes

A leaf of the Red Oak tree has sharply pointed tips. Photo by Roy Lukes.

We happen to live in that part of Wisconsin where primarily Northern Red Oaks can be found growing naturally. Farther south and to the west in Wisconsin, both the Red and the White Oaks grow.

Here are some ways you can easily tell them apart. Red Oaks belong to what is described as the Black Oak group, including species such as the Northern Red, Scarlet, Pin, Black and Scrub Oaks. These trees have sharp-pointed winter buds and the leaves have more or less pointed lobes with bristle tips. The leaves are nearly as smooth below as above. This tree’s bark is usually quite dark. The acorns ripen in two years and consequently you will see some small acorns on the trees during the winter.

White Oaks belong to the group containing species such as White, Bur and Chestnut Oak. Their leaves, which have rounded lobes without bristle tips, are rather dull and non-reflective especially on the underside. Winter buds are blunt and the bark is usually quite light colored, hence the name White Oak. Its acorns ripen in one year. Therefore there will be no acorns on these trees in winter.

A Northern Red Oak acorn tends to bulge near the tip and has a flat saucer-like cup at its base. They can be up to about one inch long.

White Oak acorns are a little shorter, oblong, and are born directly on the twig in a bowl-like cup covered with warty scales. Bur Oak acorns can be larger than White Oak acorns and have a fringed cap covering the lower half of the nut.

It is said that an oak may not begin producing acorns until it is 40 to 50 years old, and will not reach maturity until it is about 100 years of age. Given good growing conditions it can live to be 300 or more years.

Northern Red Oak. Roy Lukes

This Northern Red Oak in Ephraim is the biggest of the species in Door County. Photo by Roy Lukes.

There was a magnificent Bur Oak growing not too far from where I lived at 333 Wisconsin Ave. in Oshkosh while I attended the university there in the early 1950s. More than once I walked several blocks out of my way just to admire that majestic specimen. What physical and spiritual uplifting I received while in the presence of that giant of a tree. As is so often said, it was a symbol of strength and loyalty. Its grandeur meant so much to me after being cooped up in school all day, I believe if I owned that prize I would make special provisions to ensure its protection in future years.

David Everett in 1791 wrote the memorable lines, “Large streams from little fountains flow, tall oaks from little acorns grow.” I think of the possibility of one of the acorns now on the ground on our property germinating next spring and, hopefully during the next 100 years, growing into an imposing landmark of a Red Oak, producing thousands of acorns, feeding many wild creatures and gradually planting other oaks at Houby Hill.

I am reminded too of the poem our friend Jeanne Halama of Chicago wrote: “Who eats one acorn eats millions. He fells a forest with one swallow.”

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