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Mighty oaks from little acorns grow

Updated: Jul 19, 2023

Acorn rescue, plant a few of them and grow the best bio-home for future bugs, beasties and birds.

Magnificent oaks with early morning light to greet us every morning
Magnificent oaks greet us every morning

We are fortunate to live next to a fragment of ancient semi-natural woodland, where during this last year I have seen how incredible the ancient trees have been at coping with severe storm winds (a red-weather warning during Storm Eunice) in February. Then after that a dry spring, followed by a hot summer with searing heat and prolonged drought, in fact reservoir levels are still very low.

At the north side of the house, we felt the ancient trees kept the air around them cooler and fresher than the baking 35 degrees heat over the hard urban tree-less surface at the rear. However, even though they had their own microclimate the trees began to show signs of stress by the end of August, with crispy, dying leaves, early shedding of acorns and they lost of a few short branches (summer branch drop).

Acorn collection from local park and autumn maple leaves
Acorns from local park and autumn maple leaves

The ancient strip of trees has magnificent English Oaks, Beech and Chestnuts so I began collecting a few of the acorns and beech nuts and potting them up. Then I extended my acorn rescue by taking small packets with me while out walking (the small clear bags with a sealable strip that come with the lateral flow tests are handy) and a pen to note where they came from on a fallen leaf.

Beech and oak and pollarded oak trees near us framing the sunset
Beech and oak trees near us framing the sunset

I have collected from trees shedding their acorns over hard pathways or where people are more likely to walk over them. Outside the house, the grand old oaks seem to have had a 'mast year' resulting in so many being crunched underfoot.

The Tree Council explains ‘mast’ as "relating to the old English word ‘mæst’ – when acorns accumulated on the ground and were eaten by domestic animals like pigs. 2022 looks to be a really good acorn year."

Squirrel raiding food from the bird feeder
Squirrel raiding food from the bird feeder

I noticed the squirrels near us have been less interested in our bird feeders compared to this time last year, they are likely content with the abundance of acorns. Yes, it has been a good year, hopefully, they won't mind me planting some!

Green acorns shed from an oak in August planted in a pot before adding 2 cm of soil on top
Green acorns shed from an oak in August

These greener acorns below were shed in late August, before they were ripe (acorns turn brown when they are ready), but I'm planting them to see if they could still produce seedlings next spring. For drainage, it is good to have grit or small stones at the bottom of the pot before adding compost. I used garden soil with some peat free compost and after placing the acorns I added approximately 2cm of soil on top. I'm now keeping the pots in a shaded spot, checking weekly to ensure the soil doesn't dry out. Further advice on planting from the Tree Council & Woodland Trust in the links below.

Showing the characteristics of an English Oak tree, leaves with no stalks but acorns with stalks
English oak leaves with no stalks but acorns with stalks

English Oak showing dried, stalkless leaves, but acorns have stalks
English Oak showing stalkless leaves, but acorns have stalks

If you are ensure about which type of acorn, seeds or berries you are collecting and you don't have a botanical guide there is a lot of help available online. On the Woodland Trust Website you can read about the difference between an English and Sessile Oak.

The English oak has leaves with hardly any leaf stalks or none at all, while its acorns are on long stalks. These features on the Sessile Oak are the other way around - acorns with no stalks but leaves that do have them.

If you photograph the structure of the leaves or pick up a bunch that have fallen on a pathway, let them dry and then it is easy to see the defining features.

The oak tree supports abundant wildlife, we have seen the English Oak trees (Quercus robur) next to our home provide a haven for Nuthatches, Woodpeckers, Woodpigeons, Robins, Song Thrushes, Blackbirds, Starlings, Sparrows, Blue Tits, Coal Tits, Jays, Magpies, Crows and little Wrens, it has been a wonderful year watching some of their chicks flourish. In fact, it was not until I sat down and recorded the birds I could see for the RSPB's Big Garden Birdwatch back in January, that I realised there were Nuthatches visiting the feeder. I was so happy to see them as I had not seen the darting, beautiful Nuthatch up close before.

There are many more species that rely upon our mighty oaks, an enormous 2,300 wildlife species in all (Research published by the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology and held by the Environmental Information Data Centre), providing vital shelter, food and breeding spots. They also seem to be a recreation park for the local squirrels!

A collection of Crab apple, Acorns, Sweet Chestnut, Guelder Rose berries
Crab apple, Acorns, Sweet Chestnut, Guelder Rose berries

Amongst the 2,300 species that can thrive on, in and around living and dead oak wood, the researchers included birds and bryophtyes, including mosses and liverworts, fungi, mycorrhizal fungi, lichens, invertebrates - many of the UK's spectacular beetles, moths and butterflies and also larger mammals, from wild boar, foxes to precious bats.

We live in an area with important pockets of ancient woodland, seeing their treasures come to life, such as the bluebells and wood anemones in the spring or the golden autumnal afternoon light on a bounty of fallen crab apples has been such a comfort and valuable tonic, I hope you can find the time to get out into your local woodland and nature reserves. Better still why not plant some acorns for the future, find our what you can do with the seedlings in the spring via your local Tree Guardians or wildlife group? So many of our species call it home, where would we be without our inspirational, mighty oaks gracing our skyline?

Autumn fall of Crab apples Bolnore Woods, spring Bluebells with afternoon light in Hurst Wood
Crab apples in Ashenground and Bolnore Woods, Bluebells in spring light in Hurst Wood

Bountiful acorns and seeds - a 'Mast' year explained and what factors help them occur:

Advice on gathering and growing from seed:

Seed gathering Identification guides for common trees:

Easy to use nuts, cones, seeds, winged seeds and fleshy fruits spotter sheets:

RSPB 2022 Big Garden Birdwatch results:

Oak-associated biodiversity in the UK (OakEcol), Mitchell, R.J.; Bellamy, P.E.; Ellis, C.J.; Hewison, R.L.; Hodgetts, N.G.; Iason, G.R.; Littlewood, N.A.; Newey, S.; Stockan, J.A.; Taylor, A.F.S. (2019). NERC Environmental Information Data Centre. (Dataset).


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