Acorns are a great source of protein for wildlife and humans

November 3, 2021

Maybe it's because the human head looks like a nut that we call crazy people “nuts.” And this is the year for nuts, specifically the nuts of oak trees. You may notice this year there are far more acorns falling off oak trees than we usually find. This is because 2021 is a “mast year,” when the trees have had a bumper crop of nuts. Mast is an old word referring to all of the nuts in the forest including acorns, beechnuts, butternuts and walnuts. Pigs love nuts, as do turkeys, wild and domestic.

It all started last winter with mild weather prior to the oak trees flowering in the springtime.

Climate change probably plays a role in how often we have acorn mast years. Because of the mild winter, most of the oak tree flower buds bloomed and were pollinated, and not killed off by late frost.

While acorns falling from the sky might ding parked cars or conk a human head, the nuts are a great source of protein for wildlife and humans. Many American Indian tribes have eaten acorns for thousands of years. In addition to protein, acorns have large amounts of potassium, iron, and vitamins A and E.

Because acorns contain tannins, bitter-tasting compounds that can be harmful when consumed in high amounts, they must be soaked in water to remove the tannins. Tannins are an anti-nutrient, meaning they reduce the body’s ability to absorb nutrients. Also, eating large amounts of tannins can lead to severe liver damage and cancer.

Red oaks (Quercus rubra) are the fastest-growing oak tree and can produce acorns a few years after planting. Red oak is an excellent choice to plant along the street as it tolerates pollution and will even grow in dense, compacted soil. The trees grow as much as two feet a year, eventually reaching 60 to 75 feet tall and spreading up to 45 feet wide. Red oaks are hardy in USDA zones 3-8.

Another fast-growing oak is the pin oak (Quercus palustris). This stately tree starts growing in a pyramid shape, then gradually becomes more oval as it ages. Pin oak tolerates wet soils, and grows best in full sun. In the fall the pin oak leaves change from shiny, deep green to bronze, russet or shimmering red. Pin oak trees grow up to 70 feet tall with a spread of 25 to 45 feet. They are hardy in USDA zones 4-8.

Chinkapin oak (Quercus muehlenbergii) is a wise choice for a show or specimen tree for larger lawns, farms and parks. The light-gray bark breaks off into narrow, thin flakes for a very decorative display. The glossy, dark-green leaves change to orange-yellow in the fall. Chinkapin oaks produce large, sweet acorns that are a favorite food for wildlife. Chinkapin oaks grow 50 feet tall with an equal spread when used as landscaping, although in the wild they can reach 80 feet high. They grow best in any well-drained soil in full sun. They are hardy in USDA zones 4-7.

So, look out for the bumper crop of acorns this year, knowing they will provide much-needed nutrition to squirrels, deer, horses and even Thanksgiving turkeys. To let them go to waste would be nuts.

  • Paul Barbano writes about gardening from his home in Rehoboth Beach. Contact him by writing to P. O. Box 213, Lewes, DE 19958.

Subscribe to the Daily Newsletter