Red oak acorns are stouter than most, are one to 1¼ inches long and set in a shallow cup. These acorns have matured at the end of a second season, and this year can be numerous enough on the ground to seem like marbles underfoot.
Acorns contain more fat and proteins than other plant foods and are actively sought after by many birds and mammals, such as deer. These acorns are bitter to our humans’ taste buds, but this red oak species is the “engine of the woods” for wildlife.
Older trees are the most productive and whenever I see a stout, old-growth oak in the forest that may have been a boundary tree or provided shade for Civil War-era sheep or cattle, I am vastly pleased. Oaks may live two to three hundred years or more and keep producing very abundantly throughout their old age.
Below the White Mountains region, New Hampshire’s Indian tribes frequently burned beneath huge, old squatty-bodied oaks for their own unique style of wildlife management to help the wild turkey and deer populations expand in those times.
Fires were systematically released to create clearings for both subsistence agriculture and wildlife’s benefit. It may be surprising to learn that these Native American humans were constantly modifying their southern New England forest, well before the white man landed and started converting it to farmland or using trees for shipbuilding.
Early colonists noted savannah-like appearances in this ancient forest and stated that one could drive a wagon from the seacoast to as far as Concord, without getting out and leading the horse or dismounting.
Indians thus commonly had used fire as a landscape managing tool, releasing nutrients back to the soil and keeping any understory down for the wild animals’ benefit. Turkey flocks sometimes numbered in the hundreds, moving through and feeding on the high quality “mast” of dropped acorns, chestnuts, beechnuts and hickory nuts.
Parklike conditions prevailed, with many small clearings and in some cases, considerable space between old trees. Grasses, sedges and forbs provided forage for grazing animals as well as the annual seed crops for ground-feeding small mammals. Much of this was noted in early explorers’ journals or those of missionaries and military personnel, as well as traders and trappers’ observations.
The latest information I have come across about this acorn ecology was from the New England Forestry Foundation’s newsletter on the tree. It mentioned that the passenger pigeon’s billions often descended upon red oak forests, when the mast crop was abundant some autumns.
Their numbers broke off branches, which tumbled to the ground below. This provided kindling for periodic forest fires, doing what the Indians had learned to do. Similarly, the waxy 5-to-10-inch oak leaves fallen down also burned hot during surface fires to prevent other competing vegetation from claiming this same ground.
As the brilliant fall colors wane, Northern red oak’s broad leaves remain glossy Lincoln green for a while, then turn into reddish-bronze, ruddy leaf tones in contrast. As an earlier backdrop, the green, pointed lobes of the football-shaped leaves conveniently show off the rioting reds and gold-oranges of the maples for our leaf peepers’ eyes, then later cloak the hills with their russet crowns as the extravagant fall foliage season comes to a close.
They will keep these fading brownish leaves for a while, as they retain the energy inherent within the leaves to go back down to their roots. Only when all of this is stored, they release their papery, noise leaves to crunch underfoot.
This is cellulose we hear, and proof that the oaks have drained all their energy out of this year’s leaf crop before they let it go to the often rocky forest floor underneath. They consistently live in such well-drained, porous sandy soils, that they can’t afford to fertilize the forest duff layer below with their leaves — like the sugar maples do with their richer foliage to compost and make soil humus.
Northern red oaks grow rapidly and are tolerant of a variety of soils and site conditions though they prefer well drained lower slopes and stream bottoms. A typical southern New England woodlot might have drier sites hosting black, scarlet and white oaks with the red oaks growing where the soils are deeper and moister. Red oaks do persist onto warmer, drier sites in some northern regions of the region.
This valuable tree forms about 36 percent or $11 million of the total value of the standing timber that New England forests represent. The rest of the tree species total up to $33 million in the region. Red oak’s durable lumber is commonly used for cabinetry, furniture and interior trim, and as a popular flooring choice. Though not as numerous as white pine, it can sell for about three times per-unit value.
Dave Eastman also broadcasts “Country Ecology” four times weekly over WMWV 93.5 FM. As vice president of the Lakes Region Chapter/ASNH, he welcomes you to monthly programs at the Loon Center in Moultonborough. He is available at: email@example.com (or) countryecology.com for consultation.