The continuum of time numbs our senses, one season flowing into the next. It would happen on occasion that I’d suddenly look down one day to find the first buds bursting forth from bare branches, just freshly thawed after the season’s snows, or glanced up to find that the trees were looking a lot more colourful, or that berries had appeared amongst the branches where there were only tiny green nubbins before.
For some reason, it was often the oaks that caught my attention, whether it was the sun shining through their leaves coloured like stained glass, or their acorns underfoot, or their new leaves looking all pink and feathery.
Oaks belong to the genus Quercus, with about 600 species. North America is home to the largest number of oak species, with China following just behind. There are two main types of oaks in North America: the white oaks (section Quercus) and the red oaks (section Lobatae). The easiest way to tell them apart is by their leaves: white oaks have rounded leaves, whilst red oaks have more pointed, bristle-tipped leaves.
Their acorns, as well, are quite distinct. White oak acorns require just one year to develop on the tree and can germinate once they fall to the ground in Autumn; red oak acorns take two years to develop, and only germinate the next Spring. White oak acorns also tend to be more elongated, with smoother skin, and rounder caps, whilst red oak acorns tend to be rounder, may have a whitish covering, and have flatter caps. For those brave or hungry enough to take a nibble, white oak acorns would be a better bet- they contain less tannins, making them less bitter.
In fact, acorns are quite the important food source in the forest. Besides the iconic squirrel, birds such as jays and woodpeckers, and larger mammals such as deer and pigs, also consume large amounts of acorns. For many human societies, including the ancient Greeks and more modern Koreans and Native Americans, acorns were also an important staple food source. Preparation does involve leaching the tannins from the nuts through repeated soaking and washing over multiple days, which isn’t exactly what you’d want to do if you were starving, which is why other staples such as grains have come to displace them. Nonetheless, amongst all the nuts in the world I think acorns are some of the cutest. It’s probably the little cap, looking all warm and cosy.