Thursday, April 29, 2010

Acorn Eating Fun Facts

Some fast facts from "Use of Acorns for Food in California: Past, Present, Future," by David A. Bainbridge (another hero!)...

... In Spain and Italy acorns provided 20 percent of the diet of many people just before the turn of the 20th Century

... For native Californians acorns made of half of the diet and the annual acorn harvest likely exceeded 60,000 tons

... The yield of acorns per acre compares well with grains, with yields of 6,000 lbs/acre (and that is from wild grown trees; yields would be even higher in orchards of trees selectively bred for high yield - in other words if oaks had been given the benefit of 1/100th of the breeding work devoted to grain crops)

... Oaks can be highly productive on steep slopes where cultivation of grain crops would cause severe environmental degradation


If you are doing a buckthorn removal & ecological restoration project in the greater Twin Cities area, have I got a deal for you!

Native trees from known seed sources, expertly grown by yours truly and a forestry school classmate... cheap!

Here's what we have left:

Black walnut - 16 trees
Bitternut hickory - 6 trees
Black cherry - 15
Choke cherry - 1
White oak - 7

Most are grown in #1 or #3 pots.

To order, call Chris Siems at 507-301-5106.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

How To Kill A Tree: Exhibit A

Last August 10 I posted about a magnificent bur oak here in Northfield MN that is now threatened by a commercial development. With tongue in cheek I suggested ways that the construction company could do a nice, clean job of killing the tree. Call me cynical, but I predicted a slow death for this gorgeous tree.

The construction crew is off to a good start... in killing the tree.

Step 1: Position a new street directly under the branches, well inside the drip line (even though you have about 1/2 mile of frontage to work with and could easily position the street elsewhere.
The street is a triple threat: To construct it the grade had to be lowered, scraping away critical feeder roots. Then the soil had be be thoroughly compacted, squeezing out the air spaces the roots need. Finally, it will serve to drain rain water away from the tree.
Step 2: Continually drive & park construction vehicles inside the drip line to compress the soil in a complete ring around the tree.
For bonus points, do this in spring when soil is damp to really squeeze the air pores out of the soil!

Step 3: Use the nice, shady area under the tree for storing heavy construction supplies (necessitating more vehicle traffic over the root zone).

Step 4: Get ready to construct a frontage road WAY inside the drip line - requiring more regrading & compaction, and leading to a further diversion of rain water.
There are two other important points about this photograph:
1. The billboard in the distance is for Cannon River Tree Care, a highly competent local tree care company. If CRTC had been contacted at the start of the project this tree would be safe with a Zero Access fence outside the drip line. Unfortunately, no one ever calls a qualified arborist before construction, because they simply don't know that the things they are doing will kill the tree. That's because it's a death in slow motion taking place over years. By the time the owners realize the tree is failing they don't make the connection between the tree's current poor health and root damage that was done during construction years before.
2. The building in the distance houses a small printing shop that I often use for projects. This spring I was discussing this tree with them (they love the view of this lone tree from their window). They expressed concern about the tree's future, but said that the family that had lived on the property and who sold it to the developers had stipulated that the tree must be preserved.
It's a sad but all too familiar story: A landowner who wants the tree to live. Builders who think that by simply not wrecking the above-ground portion of the tree it will survive, and who are completely unaware of the consequences of the below ground damage they are doing. Qualified tree care professionals who are not contacted before construction, but will be contacted years down the line when nothing can be done.

Am I being cynical? Perhaps. Is it possible for this tree to survive? Yes, but the odds are against it.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

New Hero: Dr. Gary Nabhan

When working with trees and sustainable crops there are no shortages of heroes: J. Russell Smith, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, etc. etc.

But it's always a thrill to find a new hero. Dr. Gary Nabhan. Absolutely amazing guy.

It's especially cool when finding a new hero means I get to read a bunch of new books (new to me at least).

I'm going to start with Renewing America's Food Traditions and then move on to Coming Home To Eat: The Pleasures & Politics of Local Foods.
And in the upper right corner of the cover of Renewing America's Food Traditions... Acorns! I can't wait to read it and share what I learn.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Mesquite Flour - Desert Harvesters

My quest to find a commercial source of acorn flour led to an email exchange with Dr. David Bainbridge who has forgotten more about balanoculture (he did, after all, coin the term), use of native foods, and ecological restoration than I can ever hope to know.

David included a link to an incredibly cool organization call Desert Harvesters, based in Tucson. The group does with & for mesquites what I am setting out to do for oaks: make people aware of their traditional value as a food source, and disseminating the information people need to - as I always say - go back to eating the way people ate before they forgot how to eat.

With mesquites, as with oaks, and as with so many other species, J. Russell Smith was decades ahead of his time (although, it should be noted, centuries behind as well!) when he wrote:

"When one considers the ancient use of the mesquite, its present use, and its remarkably useful and promising qualities, it becomes difficult to understand why it also has been so greatly neglected by the scientific world."

I think that is because mesquite as a food source - just like oaks as a human food source - are so "old news" in the eyes of scientists. To their mind one simply doesn't make "progress" by going back in time to the way people used to do things.

It is very fitting that I received a link about mesquites from Dr. Bainbridge. It's hard to believe but it was nearly 20 years ago when he took me to see an ecological restoration project he was doing using my plastic treeshelters, near Indio, CA on the shores of the Salton Sea. If I remember correctly, the temp that day was a cool, brisk 119.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Oak Wilt Prevention on Minnesota Bound

The first of my three segments focusing on nurturing our oak trees aired on "Minnesota Bound." You can view the whole show here. The episode should also air again locally in Twin Cities on KARE-11 Saturday at noon, and elsewhere in the upper Midwest.

This first one is about oak wilt prevention, a very timely topic since the early & warm spring here in Minnesota lends new urgency to the danger of pruning oak trees in April, May & June. The segment is the "Rapala Almanac" piece right after Ron Schara's segment on turkey hunting in NW Iowa.

I have an appreciation for TV producers and hosts who, due to time constraints, have to convey complex information in a very short time. You really have to try to communicate 1 or 2 key ideas that are easy for the viewer to remember (even if they don't remember the underlying reasons for them). There is a point at which you can simplify a topic to the point of being inaccurate. I hope I didn't reach that point. I would appreciate your feedback - and brutal honesty. (Although perhaps not as brutally honest as my son, who suggested next time I should wear a cap to "cut down on the glare" off my head, or my daughter who thinks my voice on TV sounds like Kermit the Frog!)

The piece has already done some good: A viewer called the show and they relayed her question to me. She had received some very dubious advice from a Master Gardener help line; she was told she could prune a dead branch from an oak at this time. In theory, IF it could be determined that the branch and the connecting tissue at the branch collar were COMPLETELY dead and would not "bleed" any sap at all when pruned, then yes should could prune the branch now. But how, exactly , would one make that determination on the phone (let alone in person)? Why not take the "better safe than sorry" - "first do no harm" - "a pound of prevention..." approach and wait to prune until a safer time?

That was my advice, and the caller was grateful.

(As an aside, she was also told by this gardening expert that tree branches should be pruned as close to the trunk as possible, which of course is completely wrong. Hopefully I'll get the chance to do another segment later in the summer on correct pruning methods!)

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Cookies Delayed...

Oops. I went to Kim's Oriental Market on Snelling Ave in St. Paul yesterday to buy acorn flour. What I was shown instead was acorn starch, not acorn flour. No fat, no protein, just carbs.

It was a bit ironic, since the previous evening I had read the part in Michael Pollan's In Defense Of Food about the history of refined flour - how refining flour has had the effect of...

1. Making it more durable and portable so that it can be shipped farther and stored longer...

2. ... by removing the parts that make them more nutritious to the pests that compete with us for their calories (and therefore, of course, less nutritious for us)

3. Removing the fiber that ordinarily slows the release of their sugars. As Pollan says, "A great deal of modern industrial food can be seen as an extension and intensification of this practice as food processors find ways to deliver glucose - the brain's preferred fuel - ever more swiftly and efficiently. Sometimes this is precisely the point, as when corn is refined into corn syrup; other times, though, it is an unfortunate by-product of processing food for other reasons."

... it's all part of the modern diet where we need to consume more and more calories to get the basic nutrients we need from processed foods. Much, much more on Michael Pollan, especially as his views relate to and support the idea of acorn eating, in future posts.

But for now, the search for a source of acorn flour continues. If you know of an online source, please let me know!

Monday, April 12, 2010

As (Soon To Be) Seen On TV

I just filmed three short spots to appear on Ron Schara's Minnesota Bound TV show. The tentative schedule is:
April 18 - Oak wilt prevention
May 2 - Protecting trees from construction site damage
May 9 - Planting new trees, with an empasis on planting (fast growing!) oaks

The show airs on Sundays at 11:35pm, and then again the following Saturday at noon.

Thanks a million to Steve Plummer and Adam McFarlane of Ron Schara Productions for taking a break from working with pros to put up with filming a rank amateur trip over his tongue. And thanks to Ron for airing the pieces. I hope they raise awareness of oak wilt, construction damage, and the need to plant more oaks.

The show can also be viewed online. I'll post links when the episodes are up.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Acorn Flour In St. Paul

I started reading Michael Pollan's In Defense Of Food and have gotten inspired to do what I set out to do last fall: Add more acorns to my diet. Eat the way people did before we forgot how to eat and became grainaholics. Become a balanophage - at least in part.

To understand what a huge deal this is for me, you have to understand something about me: I loathe cooking. I hate all forms of food preparation. I am never more stressed than when I'm in the kitchen with more than 1 burner on at a time. OK, with just 1 burner on at a time.

Pollan says: Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
For most of my life my philosophy has been: Eat food. Lots. Mostly chips & cheese.

I have a fridge full of acorns, but I can't stand the thought of not planting and growing those acorns this spring to produce more trees. So, I have gone in search of a source of acorn flour. I found one: Kim's Oriental Market on Snelling Ave in St. Paul. Heading there Monday, baking Monday night.

Alert the fire department.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

A Sad End To The Story

Last summer I blogged about how my elderly neighbor (sweetest lady in the world) was talked into having her northern red oaks pruned... on May 22nd... by a disreputable tree care company. It never ceases to amaze me that possession of a chain saw and truck are the only qualifications necessary to become a "tree care company."

One of those red oaks, a 36" diameter giant, was infected with oak wilt and was dead by the end of August. My neighbor's red oaks are part of a row of 12 beautiful reds spanning 5 different front yards. The neighbors must have planted them at the same time 80+ years ago.

The two adjacent trees on either side of the infected tree were injected to prevent the root-to-root spread of the fungus. My fingers are crossed that the treatment was done in time, given the close proximity of the trees and the rapid spread of the fungus through the roots.

Well, today marks the sad end to the story. The infected tree is being removed. The work is being done by Cannon River Tree Care. Let me make it perfectly clear: CRTC are NOT the guys who pruned the trees in May last year!! They are a terrific local tree care company. Owners Jon and Matt Feldman have been fantastic through the whole process since the disease was first diagnosed, and have bent over backwards to work with the homeowner. I only wish that the homeowner had contacted Jon and Matt before any of this - the story would have been very different.

So while a very reputable and highly qualified local tree care company is cleaning up the damage caused by someone else, that other "tree care company" is probably out there somewhere, talking someone else into pruning their oaks on this warm, sunny April 8. So it goes in the tree care business.

... although next week I hope to make at least a small difference. Stay tuned. Literally.

Brilliance & Stupidity In 1970

Reader David Olsen send a link to this fantastic article, published in the October 21, 1970 Salt Lake City Deseret newspaper.

The brilliance: The article describes work with hybrid oaks done by Walter P. Cottam who had "retired" as a botany professor 8 years before in 1962. (One is reminded of Dr. Charles Burnham who, as a supposedly Emeritus professor of agronomy went to his University of Minnesota office every morning at 7am and who oh, by the way, founded the American Chestnut Foundation in his "retirement.")

Cottam is thought to have been the first person in American to successfully hybridize a member of the white oak group, turbinella oak (aka Sonoran scrub oak), with a member of the black oak group, Texas post oak.

More fascinating to me is Cottam's work with turbinella x Gambel oak hybrids. Utah Fish & Game biologist Rudy Drobnick identified a naturally occurring stand of hybrids in the Salt Lake Valley in 1954. Here's the interesting part: Q. turbinella is not native to that part of Utah! So how on Earth could there be a naturally occurring stand of hybrids? Drobnick and Cottam determined that 7,500 years ago, during a period of drought and elevated temperatures (yes, there were periods of elevated temperatures in the past ;-) turbinella oak migrated northward and in some cases crossed with Gambel oaks. When temperatures cooled, the purebred turbinellas died off in that area, but the hybrids survived (and reproduced - there's that question again of what defines a species).

I'm always amazed by people who can identify stands of naturally occurring hybrid oaks, because the range of characteristics for leaf shape, bark pattern, branching, etc. is so great within each species it takes an incredibly keen eye to notice trees that clearly exhibit characteristics of two different species.

But then again, I'm getting less and less amazed by this talent every day, and more and more convinced that many (most?) of the oaks we see in nature are, at least to some degree, a hybrid.

The stupidity: Cottam had planted his hybrids on the university campus for years, but had recently been stopped by a blanket ban on planting anything less than 6 feet tall. Plus, grounds crews spraying 2,4D to kill dandelions had sprayed some of his cross pollinated trees, causing the acorns to abort... Two years in a row... Second generation trees Dr. Cottam had been waiting eight years for!

Eight years is a big deal for any of us. For the 76 year old Cottam it was a VERY big deal. Like all tree lovers, his mind was filled with experiments he wanted to perform and trees he wanted to try growing... and by an acute awareness of his own mortality. I love this line: "I was a darn fool for starting this. I can't finish it. We have a lot more crosses we want to try. We haven't even scratched the surface."

The question is: Did anyone continue his work? I'll look into this. The answer, as in the case of Helge Ness at Texas A&M and all too often, is probably not.