A Time for Nuts

Whack! Another black walnut bounces off the roof of my house, letting me know that fall has finally arrived. It’s that time of year again when the nut-bearing trees in my woods start dropping their seeds. And in the case of the black walnut, those seeds are almost as big as a baseball—and nearly as hard. Encased in a thick leathery green husk, the walnut itself is difficult to get at until the outer husk dries and cracks open. And when one hits the roof—like the honking of migrating Canada geese—it’s an audible confirmation of seasonal change.

In addition to black walnuts, my woods are also populated with beech, hazelnut, hickory, red oak, white oak, and white pine trees, making this place a haven for dozens of gray, black, and red squirrels, and legions of chipmunks. In fact, this assortment of rodents is so busy collecting nuts and cones that my dog is having a hard time trying to decide which one of them to chase.

Squirrels aren’t the only creatures that have an affinity for nuts. Black bears, whitetail deer, ruffed grouse, wild turkeys and even blue jays all have a fondness for acorns and beechnuts, both of which, in sufficient quantity, pack enough nutrition to carry any of these woodland dwellers through the toughest of winters. While bears and deer may simply paw through fallen leaves prospecting for acorns, a flock of wild turkeys can rake a patch of woods so clean that nothing but bare ground is left—without leaving a single acorn in their wake.

Cooler temperatures and the spicy aroma of freshly fallen leaves are enough to entice me into taking a walk through the previously bug-infested summer woods to watch wildlife harvest the mast that has fallen from any of the trees I mentioned. But in some cases, the critters don’t wait for mast to drop. I’ve seen both chipmunks and squirrels climbing through the forest canopy cutting off acorns and beechnuts and letting them fall to the ground where they could be more-easily gathered. And I’ve watched chipmunks with cheeks full of acorns scrambling into and out of their burrows for hours as they stockpiled their larders for the long winter ahead.

I’ve also watched gray and black squirrels—actually color variants of the same species—bury nuts in the woods as well as in my yard. While many people think that squirrels bury nuts to store them for future retrieval, I’m convinced that they’re simply planting trees. I’ve never seen a squirrel recover a buried nut from my lawn and every spring I mow a dozen or more seedlings the first few times I cut the grass.

If you’d like to plant a nut tree from seed, try this: Pick up the acorn or nut of your choice, making sure that it isn’t split or damaged. Put it in your freezer for a month or so, which will simulate going through a winter. Then thaw it out and gently press it into a container of moist potting soil and keep it indoors. Keep it moist and within a few weeks, the nut will split open, sending a tap root deeper into the soil, which will be followed by a green sprout on top. And if you’d prefer an easier way, then let a squirrel do it. The red-phased gray squirrel in the photo above thinks he owns the place.


Story and Photo by John Adamski