As we flip the calendar forward into October and feel the cool nights, farmers are busy in the fields harvesting their crops. In the timber a different type of crop is ripening and it is time to evaluate the extent of acorns in the bottomland forest canopy.
Our forester annually surveys the acorn production at Duck Creek. This helps keep track of the fall food supplies and the potential cohort of tomorrow’s trees. The acorn crop of 2014 is overall one of the best mast crops for the red oaks that we have seen in several years. There is always some variation in the trees, with a few having high densities of nuts and a others carrying low densities. However, it looks like it is an outstanding year for the red oaks. Actually, out of the four oak species surveyed, over half of these trees have a medium to heavy crop of acorns. This is drastically different from last year which found the majority of the trees with a light crop.
Pin, willow, and cherry bark oaks are all in the red oak family. Like other trees these oak species naturally cycle through years of high and low production. As with many things in nature, even variability isn’t always predictable. To throw in another wrinkle, annual production can be masked or influenced by other events. For example, to produce acorns the pollination of red oaks must occur during the previous spring. Therefore, the negative effects of a late spring freeze may be felt until the next fall. Other times natural events can have immediate negative effects, like a strong summer storm that can bring down branches and immature nuts to the ground. In the past few years we’ve experience both of these scenarios. However, during the last two springs and this summer we’ve been in the clear and the red oak acorns look good.
Overcups are in the white oak family and more of a year to year type mast crop. Pollination takes place in the spring and the mast is produced that fall. However, like the red oaks, there usually is some variation each year. This fall there was a lot of variation from tree to tree, or within the crown of an individual tree, but it was still better than last year.
It is hard to know what will happen from one year to the next. Plants and animals have adapted strategies for them to be successful in the long-run and get by during the hard years, which is why we monitor and keep track of trends. This fall the high number of acorns will be good for foraging wildlife. Next year we’ll have to keep watch to see if there is a strong cohort of seedlings that have germinated in the understory. Whether it is native foods like acorns or moist soil or agricultural crops, there isn’t ever a guaranteed sure thing, which makes years of good production something to be grateful for. This fall is one of those years where we can look up to the trees and smile.