Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Happy Halloween

Getting ready for an evening of tricks and treats.  And no, sadly, I'm not handing out acorns.

My 8th grade daughter is getting ready to trick or treat.  Sheesh, in my day 8th graders didn't trick or treat.  We egged houses and smashed pumpkins.

I don't know what's wrong with kids today.

Have fun and be safe.

Friday, October 12, 2012


I sometimes forgot to check and respond to comments.  Now that I'm getting more of them (thanks and keep them coming!) I promise to get better at that. There have been some great comments recently.

In response to the article I wrote for Mossy Oak's Gamekeepers magazine, in which I said the deer that get oak trees planted for their benefit eat better than people do and in which I speculated as to why humankind stopped eating acorns after relying on them for untold millennia, thefuturefarm commented:

Bill Mollison (father of permaculture) gives another reason that we moved away from tree crops. Paraphrasing, he says that trees were getting cut down for war and building by large governments and armies, so people moved to food sources that could produce every year and avoid the risk of planting something that would take years to produce and be attractive building material for others. He gives the example of Ireland, which he claims was a forested people till England decided they needed the wood.

 I think that's absolutely true (not surprising since Mollison is a genius).  Further I also believe that governments found that forcing people to rely on annual food crops kept them busy, exhausted and easier to control as compared to a diet of acorns, which kept them nourished with a lot of free time on their hands.

In response to my post on advances I have been seeing in protecting construction site trees, Tony Salmeron of Tree Service Hendersonville NC

 Hahahaha, I loved the snippet at the end. Very funny. You're putting a hell of a lot of effort into saving them, extremely honorable. Thank you for doing a huge part for our ecosystems and environment, every step counts.

A quadruple "ha" - Thanks Tony.  Thanks for reading and stop back often.

Following my post on taste tested some Gambel oak acorns sent to me by a friend, Darin commented:

Those are nice Gambel acorns, I collect Gambel, gray, and muehlenburgii. You eat the acorns thats great, I like to grow oak trees but have not ate any yet. I can gather nice muehlenbergii acorns in Phoenix AZ and send you some. I enjoy trading acorns to grow plants but it might be fun to try to eat some.

 Unfortunately I am currently in a climate which, at a nearly constant 60 degrees with fog half the day, suits me perfectly it is not great for most oaks.  I also have limited space for growing oaks.

However Darin's comment is a reminder that I have been wanting to set up an acorn exchange for my many readers who enjoy trading acorns for both growing and eating.  Watch for a post next week!

Finally, thefuturefarm is on to me:

Sounds to me like someone is stalling from their oak gall ink post obligation :-)

 Well intentioned promises broken by overwork and short attention span are the specialty of Oak Watch!  However, I owe you guys two things:  Oak gall ink and roasted Gambel acorns.  I "promise" to do both within 2 weeks.

Everyone: thanks so much for reading.  Your comments mean the world to me.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

This is awesome: A new Oak Watch hero!

I spend a lot of time in my truck visiting customers.  I generally click back and forth between sports talk radio (even though I can’t remember the last time I watched an entire non-Olympic sporting event on TV) and public radio.  It’s a sort of intellectual whiplash, going from endless, cliché-ridden discussions on whether players of a barbaric sport should be fined or suspended for openly discussing and rewarding barbarism and other pressing topics of the day, to in-depth discussions of issues of minor importance like health care, terrorism, current and pending economic meltdowns, etc.

Yesterday I was smart/lucky/annoyed enough to switch away from the 1,892,732nd discussion and analysis of the most overrated backup quarterback in the history of football in time to hear the single most important story in the history of public radio:  A 15 minute story on my local Central Coast CA public radio station about a very cool woman in nearby Atascadero who every autumn gathers, processes and bakes acorns.  When asked why she goes to the trouble to do this every year, Cathie Asdel said (and I'm paraphrasing in the manner of someone taking notes while driving 65 miles an hour on a curving highway) "If everything we eat is pre-packaged, how important are we?"  Cathie gathers, processing, bakes and eats acorns to regain a sense of connection with the Earth.  She said, "We need to love and use the things in our environment in order to appreciate them."

I hope to meet Cathie very soon.

The story was on KCBX radio.  Yesterday they had a link to some (typewritten - I love it!) instructions from Cathie on making acorn meal and a few recipes.  I no longer see it on the KCBX web site, but luckily I clicked the link last night.

Here it is.  Enjoy.

Perhaps it would behoove me to spend a little less time listening to inane sports chatter and a little more time listening to public radio.  Then again, listening to inane chatter has its advantages.  Years ago a hugely popular Minneapolis morning drive radio show was making fun of a guy who, according to some article or other, carried a horse chestnut in his pocket for good luck.  The hosts assumed that a horse chestnut was the equine equivalent of a cow pie, and therefore thought this story was ha-ha hilarious.  In those pre-email/twitter/facebook days (God, those were the days!) I sent a fax blasting their stupidity.  They read my fax on the air and soundly blasted me for being such a spoil sport tree dweeb.  But since they read my letter on the air I also won free tickets to see Jeff Foxworthy.  Not bad!

I wonder what they'd say about a guy who often carries acorns in his pocket - not so much for luck but as a reminder of what's important.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Gamekeepers: Deer Eat Better Than We Do

The good folks at Mossy Oak publish a magazine called Gamekeepers.  It must have been a proverbial "slow news day," because for some reason I am sure they will come to regret they published an article written by me.

I have written before about how a growing number of hunters truly have it right, and are providing food for wildlife in a way that is much more efficient and sustainable than the myriad ways in which we feed ourselves: They are planting permanent "food plots" of nut- and fruit-bearing trees.  They are also much more diligent and careful than most landscape or timber tree planters when it comes to protecting and tending their young trees in order to achieve optimal growth.  In short, hunters planting oaks for deer and turkey habitat are growing those oaks faster than most farmers grow corn.  I will be spotlighting the amazing results of one particular hunter/tree planter in an upcoming post.

I find the name of the magazine - Gamekeepers - both apt and ironic.  Wikipedia defines a game keeper as:

... a person who manages an area of countryside to make sure there is enough game for shooting, or fish for angling, and who actively manages areas of woodland, moorland, waterway or farmland for the benefit of game birds, deer, fish and wildlife in general.
Typically, a gamekeeper is employed by a landowner, and often in the UK by a country estate, to prevent poaching, to rear and release game birds such as pheasants and partridge, eradicate pests, encourage and manage wild red grouse, and to control predators such as foxes, to manage habitats to suit game, and to monitor the health of the game.

The magazine title is apt in the sense that there is a growing number of folks who take a very active role in making their land as attractive and nourishing as possible for wildlife.  This generally means managing for game species like deer, turkeys, grouse, pheasants, etc. but the "unintended" consequence of this management is a huge amount of habitat for non-game species.  And from personal experience I know that even the most hard-bitten deer hunter takes tremendous pride in the multitude of non-game species his or her land supports.

And, as I say, people growing food for humans could learn an awful lot from the way that these intensive wildlife habitat managers - these gamekeepers - are growing food for wildlife.

It is ironic from a historical standpoint.  As per the Wiki definition, the game keeper was typically the dude in the employ of the local aristocrat charged with keeping the riff raff from "poaching" the earl or duke's game.  Well now the descendents of that riff raff, transported across the pond, are all aristocrats (which also means that none are aristocrats) and are all lords of their own manors, managing their own land for wildlife.  And that is a very good thing.

There is no online version of Gamekeepers.  The publishers were kind enough to give me permission to reprint the article here on this humble blog.  Here it is:

How to eat as good as your deer
Making acorns a part of your diet

By Christian Siems

Jeff Foxworthy is a very funny man, and a few years ago he delivered a very funny keynote address at the Quality Deer Management Convention.  He spoke about his lifelong love of deer, and how he admires QDMA experts in the same way many folks admire Hollywood stars.  Toward the end of his talk Foxworthy told a series of  “… you might be a quality deer manager” jokes along the lines of the “… you might be a redneck” jokes for which he is famous.  I really liked this one:  “If your deer have new bedding but your wife doesn’t, you might be a quality deer manager.” 

But this is the joke that really struck a chord with me:  “If your deer eat better than your children do, you might be a quality deer manager.”  Another laugh-out-loud line to be sure.  But I doubt Foxworthy realized how true his words were; deer really do eat better than people do, for this simple reason:

Deer eat acorns, and we don’t.

Acorns were once the Staff of Life for humankind.  Humans have consumed more acorns than wheat, rice and corn combined.  Acorns remained a dietary staple until very recently in parts of Europe (in parts of Spain and France acorns accounted for 20% of caloric intake until the late 19th century), parts of Asia (notably Korea), and California among the indigenous people.  The naturalist John Muir called the dry acorn cakes eaten by the local native people, "the most compact and strength giving food" he had ever used.  I might be romanticizing a bit here, but it is my belief that the healthiest, happiest and most peaceful people who have ever lived on Earth were acorn-eaters. 

Why did we humans eat acorns?  The answer is easy.   Acorns are incredibly nutritious and easy to gather.  Acorns are rich in protein, amino acids, carbohydrates, but most importantly fat.  People once inherently understood that fat is an essential nutrient, back before dietary geniuses told us that fat is evil (and before we all got fat trying to avoid eating fat).  Communities who subsisted largely on acorns could gather a year’s worth of nutrition in just a few days of work.  In my research I have noticed that European regions that rely heavily on tree crops (these days it’s more likely walnuts and chestnuts than acorns) have an awful lot of leisure time on their hands.  Bocce ball is huge among nut eating cultures.  So is sitting in the shade, drinking coffee and chatting.  For hours.

I have also found a study from Korea suggesting that eating sawtooth oak (Quercus acutissima) acorns can delay the onset of dementia.  You realize what this means, of course:  With the widespread planting of sawtooth oak for wildlife habitat, our deer and wild turkeys have better memories than we do.  Then again, hunters already know that.

Why did we stop eating acorns?  That answer is considerably more complicated.  An acorn diet was truly “easy street” in terms of nutritional value per man hour expended.  So why break our backs working the soil to produce annual grain crops instead?  Two dueling groups of anthropologists (and trust me, there’s nothing more fierce and scary than a dueling anthropologist) have filled a lot of research papers trying to explain the transition from acorn to agriculture.  One group claims that annual crop agriculture made permanent settlements – a.k.a. “civilization” – possible.  The other group claims that permanent settlements over-taxed local acorn resources causing catastrophic food shortages that necessitated the development of annual crops.

Either way, it’s our great loss, both in terms of health and in terms of energy expended (both human and fuel) per calorie consumed.  It’s time to rediscover the benefits of adding acorns to our diet.


If you eat acorns raw you will notice that after an initial sweet, nutty, sometimes buttery taste your tongue will quickly start to go numb, as though you have been sucking on boot leather for an hour (I’m guessing here – I haven’t actually sucked on boot leather, and anyways it wasn’t for a whole hour).  That’s the tannins you are tasting – tannins which, coincidentally, are used in tanning leather.  Luckily those tannins are water soluble and are easily removed.

Instructions for making acorn flour (borrowing heavily from an awesome web site – a must for all sportsmen who love food –

1) Gather acorns.  Acorns from the white oak group (bur oak, swamp chestnut oak, overcup oak, etc. – the ones with the rounded leaf tips) tend to be less tannic, but that’s a generalization.  Try various types of acorns, from various trees; you’ll notice enormous variation in sweetness between acorns of the same species, with some that can be eaten right off the tree and some that really curl your toes.

2) Shell the acorns.  The high tech tools I use most often to do this:  A hammer (pounding the top of the acorn where the cap used to be) and my teeth.  Don’t tell my dentist.

3) Leach the tannins.  Grind the raw acorn nutmeats into fine meal – a coffee grinder works, or you can go “old school” with a mortar and pestle.  Mix 1 cup of the meal for every 3 cups of cold water, and pour into a glass jar with a lid.  Once each day shake the mixture, wait 12 hours, pour off the water (and dissolved tannins), and replace the water.  Repeat for 1 to 2 weeks until the flour has lost its tannic bitterness.

4) Dry the flour.  Pour the acorn/water mixture into a cheesecloth strainer and gently squeeze out the water.  Spread the flour in a thin layer on a cookie sheet and place in an oven with the temperature set as low as it will go (a food dehydrator also works).  Dry the flour, mixing from time to time.  When completely dry put it in a blender with a dry blade and grind into flour.  Sift through a fine mesh sieve to remove any lingering large pieces.

5) Store finished flour in the fridge.

Another way to leach and save a larger quantity of acorns is to boil the nutmeats whole, changing water each time it darkens (repeat 3 to 6 times, until the acorns taste like chestnuts).  Then dry the acorns in a 300 degree oven for approximately 30 minutes.  Roasting in this way brings out the sugars and helps preserve the acorns.  These acorn pieces can be eaten whole, oiled and salted, or added to soups and sauces.


Acorn flour can be substituted for a portion of the wheat flour in most baking recipes.  At my house we substitute a cup of acorn flour for one of the three cups of flour in our favorite bread recipe.  We also substitute ½ cup of acorn flour for wheat flour when we make pizza dough.  In both cases the result has a mild nutty flavor, is less “carby,” and is a lot more satisfying.  Here are a couple of specific recipes I have made and really like:

Acorn Maple Syrup Cookies

Preheat to 350 degrees

1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup pure maple syrup
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp almond extract
2 eggs
1/2 cup acorn flour
1-1/2 cup all purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder

Mix the dry ingredients in a bowl.  Melt the butter then add the syrup.  Add the rest of the wet ingredients to the butter/syrup mixture.  Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients.  I sometimes find I need to add 1 to 2 more tablespoons of wheat flour if the dough is too gloppy (to use a technical culinary term).  Drop spoonfuls onto a parchment lined cookie sheet and bake for 13 to 15 minutes.

Acorn Walnut Bread (adapted from

Preheat oven to 350 degrees
1 1/2 cup whole wheat flour
3/4 cup acorn flour
1/4 cup milk
1 cup maple syrup
1 cup applesauce
1/2 cup crumbled black walnuts
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/8 cup vegetable oil
1 1/2 eggs (great reason to double the recipe!)
Mix flours and baking powder in small bowl. Combine milk, maple syrup, applesauce, vegetable oil and eggs in large mixing bowl. Mix well and stir in dry ingredients…adding black walnuts at the end. Pour into small, buttered bread pan and bake for roughly 45 minutes.

You get the idea:  Anything you can bake becomes tastier, healthier and more satisfying when you substitute acorn flour for a portion of the white flour.  After eating you will be amazed how long you feel full. 

Adding acorns to your diet is good for your health, but it can also be good for your hunting.  Viewing your oak trees as a food source forces you to be more in tune with when the acorns from various trees tend to drop (early or late), and how much competition there is from wildlife for the acorns of certain trees.  You will begin to view your property in much the same way that deer and turkeys view it, which in turn will help you better understand their dietary needs and movements.


Christian Siems is a forester with Wilson Forestry Supply and author of the blog  Chris collaborates with Mossy Oak’s Nativ Nurseries on tree tubes for protecting oak seedlings from deer browse, so they grow faster and produce acorns (for deer and people) sooner.  Chris welcomes your questions and ideas about eating acorns and can be reached at

Friday, October 5, 2012

Olympic Oak in Connellsvile, PA

I always say that every oak tells a story, it's just that we know some of the stories and we don't know others.  One English oak in Connellsville, PA tells a truly remarkable story.

1936.  Berlin.  Jesse Owens has already trampled claims of Aryan supremacy (and then I did it again 50 years later simply by being Aryan and a whole lot less than supreme).

John Woodruff, a gangly, inexperienced youth of 19 is competing for the USA at 800 meters.  A combination of a very slow pace, poor track positioning and a bunch of white dudes who don’t want to see another African American triumph mean Woodruff is completely boxed in.  Not wanting to risk disqualification by pushing his way free, he comes to a complete stop, lets the field pass him by, sprints to the outside and wins the race going away.

He arrived back home to Connellsville, PA with two mementoes of the ’36 games:  His gold medal and an English oak (Quercus robur) seedling.

He planted the seedling oak at his high school track (click on the link and scroll down).  A couple of things struck me about the photograph and the article.  The tree is 76 years old.  People always tend to overestimate the age of oak trees, based on the underlying assumption that they are extremely slow growing.  Ask anyone how old this tree is without letting them read the commemorative plaque and I guarantee they’ll say 100 to 150 years old, or more.  They would assume that it predated the stadium and was already so big that the stadium builders wanted to save it (as if).

The other thing is that I would take mild issue with the writer’s claim that English oak are, “not especially fond of western Pennsylvania’s frigid winters.”  The native range of English oak spans the better part of Europe from Scandinavia and Russia to Italy’s toe.  Depending on the seed source English oak are very well equipped for cold weather.  For many years I have been exchanging acorns with a friend in the Pittsburgh area who has a thriving English oak in his back yard.  (By "exchanging" I mean that he kindly sends me acorns while I send him Quercus doodly x squat.)

Further to my first point about growth rate:  I just looked up the range of English oak to make my second point and found a page from a British arboretum with thiswonderfully English turn of phrase:  “Popularly supposed to be slow growing, really quite fast, up to 60cm in a year for a few years.  In good soil to 20 x 2m by 50 years. Girth increase slowing from 4cm to 2.5cm annually by 250 years, then decreasing.”   

Ah yes, I can see where the slow growth thing comes from:  After strapping on an inch of diameter per year (a rate which rivals loblolly pine) for the better part of THREE CENTURIES the growth rate does tend to taper off.  What a slacker.

John Woodruff’s track career was shortened by World War II.  He served our country with distinction both in WWII and in Korea, and had a very distinguished career in sociology and social work.

Oak Galls du Jour - Jumping Galls!

Every now and then - it used to be when I was enduring a droning conference call, but since thankfully those are few and far between it's more likely when I just have a spare moment of inspiration - I do what I call an action verb + oak search.  Dancing oak.  Laughing oak.  Don't ask me why.  We all know why: I am a complete oak geek.

Today's search was Jumping Oak.  And, as always, the Magic Google Machine had an answer: not jumping oaks, per se, but oak galls that literally do jump.  I have never heard of or seen this before, but it's awesomely cool.

First read this. Oak galls are essentially wasp houses - or, more accurately, wasps tricking oak trees into building them a snug house in which the larvae can develop.  Some galls, especially here in California, can grow to the size of applies or larger.  Some, like these jumping galls, are puny.  All are indicative of how oaks support thousands of species without prejudice. 

Then watch this.  I don't have sound on my computer so I hope the guy isn't cursing a blue streak.  If he is a) he really needs to get a life and b) I apologize.

Have you seen any jumping oak galls?

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Oak Abuse: Progress - all the way to the drip line

I have told versions and parts of this story dozens of times on this blog, but I can't convey the importance of the photographs below without telling it again.

I got into this whole wacky oak caper back in the 80s.  I grew up in the northwest suburbs of Minneapolis and watched new housing development after new housing development roll over the oak woodlands where I used to hike, run, fish and (if we're being honest) blow things up and generally goof around.  In high school I worked at a local nursery and garden center loading up cars with the crushed landscape rock, plastic weed fabric and edging, seedless green ash trees and Crimson King Norway maples that replaced the oaks that were lost (oaks, of course, were far too "slow growing" and "messy" to plant back into the landscape).

I entered the Urban Forestry program at the University of Minnesota to learn how homes could be built in wooded areas with a minimum of damage.  I quickly learned that greater minds than mine (and I have yet to find another forester's mind that isn't) had already figured this out.  So I decided to be the guy who would bridge the gap between foresters and the rest of the world - developers, builders, homeowners - and bring that information to a wider audience.  My one and only attempt to make myself useful.

I started a non-profit organization called Lasting Woodlands, and put out a kind-of-sorta-when-I-had-the-time-and-money-bi-montly newsletter, put on seminars, spoke to builders and realtors groups and generally made a pompous nuisance of myself.  We're talking a lot of very late nights at Kinko's.

Lasting Woodlands was mostly famous for putting the non- in non-profit, and died a slow death in the 1990s as my other career - that of tree tube peddlar - demanded more and more of my time. Equally unprofitably.

But my interest in and passion for protecting construction zone oak trees has never abated, and I have continued to try to use every forum possible to spread the word - including some TV spots back in Minnesota a couple years ago (here's a link to the post with with that video - sorry for the glare off my forehead).

When speaking to builders I always found that the sarcastic approach worked best.  Actually, I don't know if the sarcastic approach worked best but since it's my default approach to everything it's what I went with.  I also knew that most times I was talking to builders or realtors it was a captive audience of folks getting continuing education credit toward their license renewals, so I could be pretty well assured they wouldn't get up and walk out on me.  I would tell builders, "Look, anyone can kill an oak tree the obvious ways - cut it down, bash into it with a bulldozer, snap off its branches in the middle of oak wilt season so that the tree dies by the 4th of July.  Those things don't take any skill at all.  But it takes a real expert to kill an oak tree so that it dies slowly over the course of several years, so that by the time it dies no one realizes the damage was done years before when the house was built."  The arboreal version of the perfect crime.

Then I would tell the assembled builders exactly how to kill an oak tree slowly.

First, you need to realize that the roots of an oak tree extend out away from the as far as - and usually much farther than - the longest branches.  The imaginary line from the longest branch tips to the ground is known as the drip line.  The circle created by tracing the drip line around the the entire tree is the root zone.

Second, you need to know that the vast majority of roots - especially the feeder roots that absorb moisture and nutrients - are in the top few inches of soil.

Third, you need to know that soil consists largely of air, and roots need that air to survive.

Fourth, you need to know how to kill those roots.  There are 4 time-honored methods of doing this:

1) Lower the grade of the ground in the root zone (thus scraping away and removing feeder roots)

2) Compact the soil in the root zone by driving construction vehicles underneath the branches - here's a tip: vehicles with tires are much more effective at compacting the soil as compared to vehicles with tracks

3) Raise the grade of the ground in the root zone (thus suffocating feeder roots under tons of fill)

4) Severe the roots to install utilities, sprinkler systems, etc.

The two great things about damaging the roots are a) it really takes very little damage to send the tree into a downward health spiral, and b) that downward spiral can occur over the course of several years.  By the time the tree dies no one will attribute its demise to construction activities that happened a decade ago, and instead will blame its death on whatever insects or diseases secondarily attacked a stressed tree already in decline.  Like I said, it's the perfect crime.

The only downside to this perfect crime is that - on the off chance anyone is actually concerned about saving the trees - it is equally easy to prevent.  Just put up a fence around the drip line - better yet a bit beyond the drip line - and don't allow any changes of grade or construction traffic in that area. 

No, you won't get the thrill of knowing you committed a tree murder that will never be solved, but you will get the less exciting but nonetheless palpable satisfaction of having done the right thing.

In the last two plus decades I have seen a dramatic increase in the use of protective fencing on construction sites.  Sadly it generally is set up to protect only the trunks - and not the root zones - of mature trees, a further twist on the perfect crime that is as sinister as it is brilliant:  The trunk protection fence makes it look like you care about saving the tree, while giving free access to do the root zone damage that won't show up for years.  Brilliant!

But more recently I have been seeing protective fencing on construction sites that is actually, well, protective. 
There are two sights that fill my forester's heart to bursting:  Seeing a newly planted oak tree reach its (astounding) growth potential, and seeing a properly installed drip line fence.

So, without further adieu (because this post has already included way more adieu that anyone could be expected to read), I applaud the California Department of Transportation - Caltrans - for exemplary use of the drip line fence during a renovation of Hwy 101 near the Santa Margarita exit.

Even younger oaks are worthy of drip line protection
(since young oaks are generally where old oaks come from)
Even better: Fence the drip line of a stand of trees;
you might end up accidentally saving some non-oaks
in the process, but that can't be helped.
That last caption was a bit of sarcasm just to see if you're still with me.

If you are ever out and about and see either construction damage in progress, or in the wildly unlikely event that you actually see well-deployed construction fencing, please let me know and send pictures!