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Acorn

Acorns of Sessile Oak

The acorn, or oak nut, is the nut of the oaks and their close relatives (genera Quercus and Lithocarpus, in the family Fagaceae). It usually contains a single seed (rarely two seeds), enclosed in a tough, leathery shell, and borne in a cup-shaped cupule. Acorns vary from 1â6 cm long and 0.8â4 cm broad. Acorns take between about 6 or 24 months (depending on the species) to mature; see List of Quercus species for details of oak classification, in which acorn morphology and phenology are important factors.

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[edit] As wildlife forage

A group of acorns on a branch.

Acorns are one of the most important wildlife foods in areas where oaks occur.

Wildlife which eat acorns as an important part of their diets include birds, such as jays, pigeons, some ducks, and several species of woodpeckers. Small mammals that feed on acorns include mice, squirrels and several other rodents.

Such large mammals as pigs, bears, and deer also consume large amounts of acorns: they may constitute up to 25% of the diet of deer in the autumn.[1] In Spain and Portugal pigs are still turned loose in dehesas (large oak groves) in the autumn, to fill and fatten themselves on acorns. However, acorns are toxic to some other animals, such as horses.

The larvae of some moths and weevils also live in young acorns, consuming the kernels as they develop.[2]

Acorns are attractive to animals because they are large and thus efficiently consumed or cached. Acorns are also rich in nutrients. Percentages vary from species to species, but all acorns contain large amounts of protein, carbohydrates and fats, as well as the minerals calcium, phosphorus and potassium, and the vitamin niacin. Total food energy in an acorn also varies by species, but all compare well with other wild foods and with other nuts.[3]

Acorns also contain bitter tannins, the amount varying with the species. Since tannins, which are plant polyphenols, interfere with an animal's ability to metabolize protein, creatures must adapt in different ways to utilize the nutritional value that acorns contain. Animals may preferentially select acorns that contain fewer tannins.

Creatures that cache acorns, such as jays and squirrels, may wait to consume some of these acorns until sufficient groundwater has percolated through them to leach out the tannins. Other animals buffer their acorn diet with other foods. Many insects, birds, and mammals metabolize tannins with fewer ill-effects than humans.

Species of acorn that contain large amounts of tannins are very bitter, astringent, and potentially irritating if eaten raw. This is particularly true of the acorns of red oaks. The acorns of white oaks, being much lower in tannins, are nutty in flavor, which is enhanced if the acorns are given a light roast before grinding.

Tannins can be removed by soaking chopped acorns in several changes of water, until water no longer turns brown. Being rich in fat, acorn flour can spoil or get moldy easily and must be carefully stored. Acorns are also sometimes prepared as a massage oil.[1]

[edit] Acorn dispersal agents

Acorns are a vital food source for squirrels.

Acorns, being too heavy for wind dispersal, require other elements to spread. Oaks therefore depend on biological seed dispersal agents to move the acorns beyond the mother tree and into a suitable area for germination (including access to adequate water, sunlight and soil nutrients) ideally a minimum of 20â30 m from the parent tree[citation needed].

Many acorn consumers eat unripe acorns on the tree or ripe acorns from the ground, with no reproductive benefit to the oak. However, some acorn predators also serve as seed dispersal agents. Jays and squirrels that scatter-hoard acorns in caches for future use, effectively plant acorns in a variety of locations in which it is possible for them to germinate and thrive.

Although jays and squirrels retain remarkably large mental maps of cache locations and return to consume them, the odd acorn may be lost, or a jay or squirrel may die before consuming all of its stores. A small number of acorns manage to germinate and survive, producing the next generation of oaks.

Scatter-hoarding behavior depends on jays and squirrels associating with plants that provide good packets of food that are nutritionally valuable, but not too big for the dispersal agent to handle. The beak sizes of jays determine how large acorns may get before jays ignore them.

Acorns germinate on different schedules, depending on their place in the oak family. Once acorns sprout, they are less nutritious, as the seed tissue converts to the indigestible lignins that form the root.[4]

[edit] Cultural relevance

In some human cultures, acorns once constituted a dietary staple, though they are now generally considered a minor food with the exception of Native American and Korean cultures. In Korean culture in particular, dotorimuk, acorn jelly, and dotori guksu (acorn noodles), are commonly eaten[citation needed].

Several indigenous human cultures have devised traditional acorn-leaching methods that involved tools and that were traditionally passed on to their children by word of mouth.[5][6]

[edit] Symbolism

Acorns appear only on adult trees,[citation needed] and thus are often a symbol of patience and the fruition of long, hard labor. For example, an English proverb states that Great oaks from little acorns grow, urging the listener to wait for maturation of a project or idea.[citation needed] A German folktale has a farmer trying to outwit Satan, to whom he has promised his soul, by asking for a reprieve until his first crop is harvested; he plants acorns and has many years to enjoy first.[citation needed]

By analogy with the shape, in nautical language, the word acorn also refers to a piece of wood keeping the vane on the mast-head.[citation needed] In some cultures, it is said that good luck will follow if one carries acorns in one's pocket.[citation needed]

[edit] Mythology

The Norse legend that Thor sheltered from a thunderstorm under an oak tree has led to the belief that having an acorn on a windowsill will prevent a house from being struck by lightning; hence the popularity of window blind pulls decorated as acorns.

[edit] As food

Acorns served an important role in early human history and were a source of food for many cultures around the world.[7] For instance, the poorer Ancient Greeks would eat acorns in their food and in the JÅmon period of Japan, acorns were harvested, peeled and soaked in natural or artificial ponds for several days to remove tannins, then processed to make acorn cakes.[citation needed] Despite this history acorn is currently not a significant source of calories for modern societies.

Dotorimuk muchim („Í리묵무Ì), a Korean dish made with acorn starch

In Korea, an edible jelly named dotorimuk is made from acorns and Dotori guksu are Korean noodles made from acorn flour or starch. In the 17th century, a juice extracted from acorns was administered to habitual drunkards to cure them of their condition or else to give them the strength to resist another bout of drinking. Roasted acorns are also a popular street food.

[edit] In art

A motif in Roman architecture and popular in Celtic and Scandinavian art, the symbol is used as an ornament on cutlery, jewelry, furniture, and appears on finials at Westminster Abbey. The Gothic name akran had the sense of "fruit of the unenclosed land". The word was applied to the most important forest produce, that of the oak. Chaucer spoke of "achornes of okes" in the 14th century. By degrees, popular etymology connected the word both with "corn" and "oak-horn", and the spelling changed accordingly.

[edit] Use and management by Native Americans

 

Mortar holes for leaching tannins out of acorns, Lost Lake, California

Acorns were a traditional food of many indigenous peoples of North America, but served an especially important role for Californian Native Americans, where the ranges of several species of oaks overlap, increasing the reliability of the resource.[8]

Acorns, unlike many other plant foods, do not need to be eaten or processed right away, but may be stored for long time periods, as done by squirrels. In years that oaks produced many acorns, Native Americans sometimes collected enough acorns to store for two years as insurance against poor acorn production years.

After drying them in the sun to discourage mold and germination, Native American women took acorns back to their villages and cached them in hollow trees or structures on poles, to keep acorns safe from mice and squirrels. These acorns could be used as needed. Storage of acorns permitted Native American women to process acorns when convenient, particularly during winter months when other resources were scarce.

Women's caloric contributions to the village increased when they stored acorns for later processing and focused on gathering or processing other resources available in the autumn. Women shelled and pulverized those acorns that germinate in the fall before those that germinate in spring. Because of their high fat content, stored acorns can become rancid. Molds may also grow on them.

Native North Americans took an active and sophisticated role in management of acorn resources through the use of fire, which increased the production of acorns and made them easier to collect[citation needed]. The deliberate setting of light ground fires killed the larvae of acorn moths and acorn weevils that have the potential to infest and consume more than 95% of an oak's acorns, by burning them during their dormancy period in the soil.

Fires released the nutrients bound in dead leaves and other plant debris into the soil, thus fertilizing oak trees while clearing the ground to make acorn collection faster and easier. Most North American oaks tolerate light fires, especially when consistent burning has eliminated woody fuel accumulation around their trunks. Consistent burning encouraged oak growth at the expense of other trees that are less tolerant of fire, thus keeping landscapes in a state in which oaks dominated.

Oaks produce more acorns when they are not in close competition with other oaks for sunlight, water and soil nutrients. The fires tended to eliminate the more vulnerable young oaks and leave old oaks which created open oak savannas with trees ideally spaced to maximize acorn production.

[edit] See also

[edit] References

  1. ^ a b Gen. Tech. Rep. PSW-44, USDA, Forest Service, Pac. S.W. Forest and Range Experiment Station, Berkeley, California, pp. 184-194.
  2. ^ Brown, Leland R. (1979) Insects Feeding on California Oak Treesin Proceedings of the Symposium on Multiple-Use Management of California's Hardwood Resources, Timothy Plum and Norman Pillsbury (eds.).
  3. ^ http://www.nutritiondata.com/facts-001-02s02dn.html Nutrition Facts for Acorn Flour
  4. ^ Janzen, Daniel H. (1971) Seed Predation by Animals in Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics. Richard F. Johnson, Peter W. Frank and Charles Michner (eds.)
  5. ^ NativeTech: Indigenous Food and Traditional Recipes
  6. ^ Cooking With Acorns
  7. ^ Bainbridge, D. A. (November 12â14, 1986), Use of acorns for food in California: past, present and future,, San Luis Obispo, CA.: Symposium on Multiple-use Management of Californiaâs Hardwoods, http://www.ecocomposite.org/native/UseOfAcornsForFoodInCalifornia.doc 
  8. ^ Baumhoff, Martin A. (1963) Ecological Determinants of Aboriginal California Populations. University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Etnology 49(2)155-235.

[edit] External links

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (Eleventh ed.). Cambridge University Press. 



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