The acorns, beechnuts, berries and fruits of many of our trees and bushes are mature and ready for picking. All of these are really seeds; some just have fancier packaging, like the apples, pears and acorns. The bright colors help aid birds and other animals to see them. Along with the colors, the nutritious meal is the plant’s way of making sure the seeds get eaten or carried away for the survival of that plant species.
Birds and animals eat the seeds and they get deposited elsewhere in the droppings. Squirrels and chipmunks all collect seeds and bury them or hide them for winter food sources. This helps spread the seeds throughout the area, where many may grow into trees, if conditions are right. Its nature’s way to get seeds transported throughout the planet.
In some cases the seeds can just sit idle and wait. They are dormant until there is a disturbance, which creates the right ecological atmosphere for them to grow in. A fire may burn off surface organic matter which exposes mineral soil; a medium where some species prefer. A wind storm can topple trees which expose the ground to sunlight, which activates those dormant seeds to start growing. This starts the ecological plant race to see who gets the sun and who gets shaded out and dies.
Some seeds have built in Velcro so they stick to your dog’s hair or your coat and get carried to another site. I have a collection on one of my orange sweatshirts that seems to be a sticky seed magnet. I don’t have the patience to pick each seed off, so I wear the shirt and deal with it. Who cares? My existence doesn’t depend on fashion!
These acorns, berries and other fruits and sticky things all contain the seeds for the next generation of plants. A plant’s goal is to grow and reproduce. Nature’s marketing campaign seems to work. Plants are everywhere.
As a soul who likes to manage the woods and fields, I have carried pockets full of acorns, seeds and fruits home in my coats, pants and empty coffee cups for years. Now I carry zip lock bags to collect seeds in. The mud room and kitchen table all have seen my daily collections and have been used to sort out the numerous seeds collected that day. Maybe that’s why my hunting score is low. I am spending my time observing trees, the forest, streams and wetlands and wandering through the woods, taking my gun for a walk, always wanting to know what is on the other side of that hill before me!
Once I have my collection together, I plant the seeds in 4 by 8 nursery boxes to get them started. A mix of compost and sand works great for a seedbed. The following spring or summer, if they are large enough, I transplant them. I may need to wait a second year to allow them to get large enough and establish a sound root system, before moving them to their final home. I have collected walnuts, acorns for oak trees, high bush cranberry, winterberries, wild raisins and numerous other seeds to get my wildlife planting. Wild apples crushed and then the mess spread out in a planting box works great. In time small wild apple trees grow if you weed out the bed.
I thought I was the only nut who collected nuts, but I found a similar character who shares the passion.
Every once in a while you meet that someone who does something extra to give back to wildlife. Such a man lives in our area. He wishes to remain anonymous and I respect his desire for the lack of fame. I will call him Johnny Acorn!
For 20 years now, this 83 year old, seasoned outdoorsman has collected five gallon buckets of oak acorns in the fall. Then while on hikes and hunting excursions throughout the Adirondacks, with his red and black checkered hunting coat pockets filled to the wool flaps, he would plant acorns in openings and isolated spots to help provide a source of wildlife food for the future. He has planted white and red oak acorns for two decades now and his offspring of oaks grow throughout the area.
I took a tour with the man and he showed me his work of art; his Picasso’s of the smooth and woody bark tree world. Red, white and swamp oak plantings growing in thickets of pine and maple.
With the memory of a young man, he was able to show me some of the first oaks that started from his acorn plantings. Many are now 3 or 4 inches in diameter at breast height; slow growers because of poor soils and because they were deliberately planted in the shade of white pines, hopefully protected from the mouths of hungry deer.
This passion started when he saw the beech trees dying off years ago. He knew the wildlife needed the nuts for food, so he took on the chore of assisting Mother Nature. Sometimes he would transplant oak seedlings, but mostly just planted acorns. With a sharp stick in hand he would walk along and just poke a hole into the earth and drop in an acorn, step it in with his hunting boot and walk on. Survival was in the hands of Mother Earth and God now.
The whitetails have had their share of Johnny’s trees. We saw numerous ones that were browsed heavily, with a shape more like a bush than a tree. He has lost many to over browsing, but continued planting each and every year. Eventually some out grew the mouths of the deer and are now tall enough to survive.
He told me: “plant as many as you can, wherever you can; the good ones are the ones that grow; nature will sort it all out”. As we drove home from the tour, he told me he won’t be around long enough to see what happens to his trees. Over the years he has lost many, but many more oaks will survive to live long after Johnny Acorn is gone.
This man’s oak tree legacy will remain. I will never forget where his trees are located. When my friend Johnny is gone, he now knows, I will take care of them for him and carry on the Johnny Acorn tradition.
Rich Redman is a retired District Conservationist for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and an avid outdoorsman. His column will appear regularly. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.