Most of us are familiar with the mythology around oak trees. They are considered oracular beings in many traditions. The Druids considered them to be sacred, the Greeks associated oaks with Zeus). In Britain, there was a goddess of oak trees….but in general, oaks are considered to be male beings though they bear seeds and flowers on one tree. Curiously, they do not self-pollinate according to author Doug Tallamy, so other oaks are needed to produce acorns.

Mighty male trees? Nothing could be further from the truth in terms of behavior because oaks are found all over the world and in this country they are what is considered to be a keystone species. What this means is that oaks support and nurture an incredible amount of animals, insects, and birds. A ‘Mother Tree’ in every way. We have four species in this country, one of which clones itself and behaves like a bush. It is believed to be about 1300 years old ( found in the west). Oaks are also considered to be keystone species throughout the Northern Hemisphere.

The natural lifespan of an oak is about 900 years, although few live that long. Oaks, even as tiny seedlings, support insects that birds need to survive. Moths in particular, and some butterflies, both in the larval stage. Most nestlings need insects for protein and fat. Many people don’t know that most birds are insectivores so without insects we will continue to lose more than the three billion birds that we have lost already. I recently learned that birds like chickadees, nuthatches, and titmice have a winter diet that combines the two equally – seeds and insects.

Most oak tree insects in the larval stage just sit there in oak branches. They have glycerine, a kind of antifreeze that allows them to survive even the harshest winters. In the fall acorns, the seed capsules belonging to oaks support an incredible variety of woodland animals like turkeys, opossums, grouse, deer, bear, and of course, squirrels, to name just a few.

One of the most fascinating pieces of information I learned is that jays and oaks co-evolved about 60 million years ago, forming a mutually beneficial relationship. Jays carry acorns a mile or more and bury them one by one in their home territories. In this way, the jays of the world have been responsible for the spread of all oaks!


Oaks hang on to their leaves, some throughout the winter, and when these leaves finally drop, they purify the water of toxins and stabilize downpours that create flooding as a result of heavy summer rains. This detritus keeps oak roots moist and creates a habitat for earthworms and springtails as well as many other creatures we don’t see. Allowing the leaves to remain as mulch helps the tree and every other living creature associated with oaks and beyond…

Another advantage of having oaks is that you can plant them close to a house and not worry about tree damage. Oaks planted in good soil will develop a taproot and extensive underground root systems that will keep an oak upright in all but tornadoes. Better yet, plant them in small groups; oaks’ roots will intertwine, making them even more stable. Besides, oaks like their own company! If you have a small yard, you can plant an oak that will not tower over your property! There are a number of little oaks, one that will produce acorns when five feet tall. Oaks are both disease and drought resistant, which is a huge advantage with global warming increasing surface temperatures at an unprecedented rate.

Most oaks begin to produce acorns by the time they are twenty years old, but please do not buy big trees. Start with a seedling, or better yet an acorn. Oaks are fast growing and they will reward you for your patience by developing into healthy long-lived trees.

When I first moved to the mountains 40 years ago, I noted that the one tree missing from my property was the oak. Because it was my intention to plant primarily for animals, birds, butterflies, and bees – to give back the gift that nature had given me for so many years – every flower, tree, herb, and wildflower I put into the ground was planted with nature in mind. Then I let nature decide what would happen next. Today we would call this rewilding.

Because I had no oaks, I collected acorns in the fall for a few years, seeding them directly into the earth. Nothing. Disappointed, I assumed the soil might be the problem.

Then about ten years ago I noticed some giant red oak leaves drifting to the ground in the fall (Quercus is the genus for all oaks). Where had they come from? A few birches fell, exposing more understory, and that’s when I noticed young red oak trees appearing next to the pine trees. I had oaks at last. Thanks to the bluejays and maybe a few forgetful squirrels?


Now I make it a habit each spring to join what the jays do in the fall – collect acorns! I select specimens that have no holes in them. If the weevils have gotten in, the acorn will not sprout. I find mine along the side of country roads, and sometimes it is possible to pick one up that has already split. I start looking in April, and as soon as I find viable seed capsules, I soak them in wet towels for a day or so until the white root with its red tip is visible. Then I plant Quercus (genus) in clay pots, transplanting seedlings close to white pines in early fall because oaks and pines have a mycorrhizal relationship.

Don’t be discouraged if you see only two leaves emerge that first year; this is normal. The root is ten times the size of the emerging twig. All the growth is occurring underground. Burgeoning roots will eventually store an immense amount of carbon, safely, and for a very long time. A wire cage will help keep seedlings protected from deer and other browsers, and because oaks are fast growing you will have an elegant little tree in a very few years.

The ‘experts’ tell us to gather acorns in the fall, but I did that and no seedlings emerged. So I wait for spring to forage and have not had a problem germinating red oak seedlings. Apparently white oaks – the elliptical ones – take 18 months to germinate, while red oaks (round) only take a year. The cluster of white oaks I planted here a few years ago also germinated in the spring, so perhaps I was just fortunate. This April when I go in search of my acorns I’ll plant white oaks again to see if they grow. White oaks are less common around here.

When spring arrives why not forage for and plant an acorn or two? I have found this process to be a satisfying one. As a lifetime gardener/forager and naturalist I look forward to the joy of watching an acorn becoming a tree that will support so much wildlife.

Nature will thank you.

As children, my little brother and I collected acorns, both red and white from the giant oaks on my grandparents’ property. We made acorn animals to play with. We also constructed acorn pipes, and ground acorns into a nubby flour that was devoured by local bird populations. One spring we decided to plant acorns. Gathering a few for this purpose we soaked them in water and were shocked to discover that they sprouted roots( that we thought were shoots) in a few days. Planting them upside down in pots the acorns soon revealed that shoots were rooting deep into the soil! We were a little disappointed when only two leaves finally appeared that first year. Still, we transplanted the seedlings in the earth next to an old field wall near some large red oaks.

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