8 things you didn’t know about acorns

Acorns are very common in southern Canada, but how much do you know about them? Photo by moonimage, acorns, CC, https://www.flickr.com/photos/moonimage/9166449223/

Acorns are very common in Southern Canada, but how much do you know about them? Photo by moonimage, acorns, CC, https://www.flickr.com/photos/moonimage/9166449223/

 

“Are acorns nuts?” my roommate asked out of the blue.

The science nerd in me struggled to remember the botanical definition of a nut.

Being a normal human being, my roommate was interested in more practical matters; “If kids are bringing them into a nut-free daycare, will kids with nut allergies react to them?”

Good question. I had no idea. But Google did.

The short answer is no, allergies to acorns are quite rare. There has never been a recorded death related to an acorn allergy. Therefore, kids with tree-nut allergies who pick up and play with acorns will be fine.

However, acorns are still a tree nut, so just in case kids shouldn’t be eating them! Thankfully acorns are very bitter, and not likely to be ingested. We’ll get to that later.

Being an inquisitive botany geek, I naturally wanted to learn more about acorns. Let’s learn together, shall we?

1. Acorns are nuts, but almonds aren’t!

The hard case of this acorn is split open, revealing the yummy fruit inside! Photo by John, cygnus921, Acorn 020, CC, https://www.flickr.com/photos/cygnus921/2955260269/

The hard case of this acorn is split open, revealing the yummy fruit inside! Photo by John, cygnus921, Acorn 020, CC, https://www.flickr.com/photos/cygnus921/2955260269/

It turns out that botanically a nut is a very special beast. A nut is a hard, dry pod that surrounds the fruit and a single seed inside. Think chestnuts, hazelnuts and acorns! Almonds are actually drupes, like plums and peaches.

2. Meet the family

There are 450 species of oak trees wordwide, but only 13 in Canada. Most of our native species hang out in the most southern parts of the country. The Cork Oak (Quercus suber) is where all your wine corks come from, and the waterproof wood of the White Oak is used for wine barrels.

3. Geeky Canadian trivia

Quick, which province does this flag represent? Photo by Nicolas Raymond, Prince Edward Island Grunge Flag, CC, https://www.flickr.com/photos/80497449@N04/7384695152/

Quick, which province does this flag represent? Photo by Nicolas Raymond, Prince Edward Island Grunge Flag, CC, https://www.flickr.com/photos/80497449@N04/7384695152/

Quick, which Canadian province has acorns on its flag? If you guessed Prince Edward Island, you’re right! There are four oak trees on the flag, one represents England and three others represent the three counties of Prince Edward Island. The Red Oak, a native tree prized for its wood ideal for furniture making, is also the province’s official tree. Who knew?

4. Sexy acorns

Can you guess which part of the male anatomy was named after the acorn? It’s the glans, or head of the penis! Glans the Latin word for acorn. I guess the 17th century English thought there was some resemblance. No, I’m not going to draw you a picture.

5. Essential fall food!

Birds and beasts of all kinds love snacking on acorns. Photo by Ingrid Taylar, A Caching Steller’s, CC, https://www.flickr.com/photos/taylar/7331902826/

Birds and beasts of all kinds love snacking on acorns. Photo by Ingrid Taylar, A Caching Steller’s, CC, https://www.flickr.com/photos/taylar/7331902826/


We often see squirrels with acorns, but did you know that deer eat them too? 25% of a deer’s fall diet is acorns! Mice, woodpeckers, blue jays and ducks like to snack on them too. Oak trees depend on animals to carry their acorns somewhere else, bury them, and then forget about them so a new tree can start growing.

6. Essential human food!

Acorns have been eaten by many different cultures for thousands of years. In North America, some groups of Aboriginal peoples depended on acorns. For example, it is estimated that 75% of the Aboriginal people in California relied on acorns on a daily basis. Most oak trees only produce acorns every 2-3 years, so most groups found ways to store unshelled nuts for 10-12 years in granaries. Today the descendants of these groups use acorns as special traditional foods, but do not eat them every day.

7. Nutritional powerhouses

Acorns are packed with nutrients! Though not these ones, because they aren't ripe yet. Photo by woodleywonderworks, Fruit From Hurricane Irene (green acorns), CC, https://www.flickr.com/photos/wwworks/6094598165/

Acorns are packed with nutrients! Though not these ones, because they aren’t ripe yet. Photo by woodleywonderworks, Fruit From Hurricane Irene (green acorns), CC, https://www.flickr.com/photos/wwworks/6094598165/

There’s a reason so many people have eaten acorns throughout history- they are abundant and really good for you. Some acorns are 18% fat, 6% protein and 68% carbohydrate, equivalent to modern corn and wheat. They are also great sources of vitamin A and C.

8. Tricky tannins

There is only one problem about eating acorns-they mess with your insides! Well, not dangerously so, but they contain tannin, a bitter chemical that we humans use to tan leather. Too much tannin in your sensitive intestines makes it hard for them to get any nutrients out of the food you’re eating! So acorns may be super good for you, but if you’re eating them raw your body will never see any of those wonderful nutrients. You’ll also be left with a bitter taste in your mouth. Tannins are also found in berries and pomegranates, but acorns take tannins to the next level.

Well, that’s not very nice of oak trees, is it? It’s actually a clever defense mechanism. If all their acorns get eaten, none will turn into baby trees. So the bitter tannins are a way to discourage animals from eating their seeds. Pretty neat, huh?

Unfortunately for the oak trees, many animals have found ways to get around tannins. Some animals have special digestive systems that destroy the tannins before they can do their thing. Other animals like squirrels, deer and pigs eat so many acorns at once that it doesn’t matter that they aren’t absorbing all possible nutrients. Humans have a different adaptation-soaking the nuts in water to rinse out the tannins.

As we head into fall, hopefully you’ll look at all those fallen acorns in a different light!

References

http://www.csus.edu/anth/museum/pdfs/Past%20and%20Present%20Acorn%20Use%20in%20Native%20California.pdf
http://www.hastingsreserve.org/OakStory/Acorns2.html
http://books.google.ca/books?id=tnwAlLgWEhAC&pg=PA114&lpg=PA114&dq=penis+glans+named+after+acorn&source=bl&ots=kMGAkN3DzA&sig=Od-y1vkXd2y2KIQl-3wuCsVajSg&hl=en&sa=X&ei=5t4AVMilCs6_sQSm_4HoCA&ved=0CCMQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=penis%20glans%20named%20after%20acorn&f=false
http://ontariosown.ca/uncategorized/nuts-about-acorns/
http://www.gov.pe.ca/infopei/index.php3?number=1599
http://www.gardenguides.com/101927-oak-trees-canada.html
http://www.ontario.ca/environment-and-energy/white-oak
http://ontariosown.ca/uncategorized/nuts-about-acorns/
http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/422776/nut
http://www.seriouseats.com/2010/04/what-are-the-differences-between-nuts-and-drupes.html
http://www.biology-online.org/dictionary/Nut
http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/423415/oak
http://www.schoolhealthservicesny.com/uploads/Acorns%20Pinecones.pdf
http://www.anaphylaxis.org.uk/what-is-anaphylaxis/knowledgebase/tree-nut-allergy–acorns?page=11
http://blog.onespotallergy.com/2012/11/newstalk1010-interview-are-acorns-a-risk-if-youre-allergic-to-tree-nuts/

Who wants to get pollinated? Delightful Daylilies!

Ever seen one of these by the side of the road? They're garden flowers gone wild!Photo by Ralph Daily, Dayliliy, CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/ralphandjenny/7192088348/

Ever seen one of these by the side of the road? These garden flowers have gone wild!Photo by Ralph Daily, Dayliliy, CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/ralphandjenny/7192088348/

I just got back from an adventure in France and the Netherlands, so sorry I haven’t posted in a while. You’ll probably see some photos of the neat flora and fauna I saw there in the near future. It was great to be unplugged for a bit, but now I’m back at the blog!

About a month ago I visited ‘Les Jardins d’Emmarocalles” a garden in Quebec that showcases “les hemerocalles”. I knew that these were flowers, but I had no idea what kind. Once we arrived it became clear that ‘les hemerocalles’ are daylilies. We spent the afternoon picnicking among daylilies of all of shapes, sizes and colours. As you can imagine, there were bees everywhere! I overheard this conversation near a relatively inconspicuous orange daylily.

Bee: Boy, am I hungry! Which flower should I visit first? Decisions, decisions!

Day lily: Oh, oh, pick me, pick me!

B: No thanks. You’re a lily. I don’t like lilies.

D: Now, that’s not fair. I’m only distantly related to lilies. Just because we look the same doesn’t mean we’re related. It’s what’s inside that counts. I’m quite offended.

B: You’re sure you’re not a lily? I mean, humans even call you “Daylilies”

D: Who are you going to believe, me or some human? For ages they thought we belonged to Liliaceae, the Lily family. However, lately they finally figured out DNA and now I’m in a different family entirely, Hermerocallidoideae! So no, I’m not a lily!

B: Huh. Well if you’re not a lily, why do you look like one?

D: Let me give you an example. Sharks and dolphins have similar body shapes, but one’s a fish and the other is a mammal. When two living things develop the same body shape to do the same job, it’s called convergent evolution. For sharks and dolphins, it’s swimming quickly though the water. For me and lilies, it’s attracting pollinators. If there’s already a shape that works, why reinvent the wheel?

B: Okay, that makes sense. Wait a second, you’re a plant .You can’t move. How do you know about sharks and dolphins?

D: The neighbor across the road has a big screen TV and always watches Discovery channel.

B: Ah. Why are you called Daylily then if you’re not a lily?

D: Because my flowers only bloom for one day.

B: That doesn’t seem like the best way to get pollinated. If I’d missed you today, you’d be out of luck!

D: Not at all! Each flower only blooms for a day, but each of my flower stalks has 10-50 flower buds. I’ll be blooming for a long time yet! In fact, I’ll also bloom again in a month’s time. But pollination isn’t the be all end all. I have…other…ways of reproducing.

B: Yah? Do tell!

D: Instead of blubs, like true lilies, I have an underground root system that can spawn new plants. This is similar to what strawberries do. We like company, so we have a tendency of forming large clumps and taking over any place that we’re planted. We’re awesome and we know it.

B: I knew I’d seen you somewhere before! You’re that orange flower that blooms along the highway in the summer! There’s so many of you. You must be native to Canada, right?

D: Nope. We’re actually native to China, Korea and Japan.

B: Whoa, you’re a long way from home! What are you doing in Canada?

D: It’s kind of a long story.

B: Tell me, I love stories.

D: Okay, if you insist. The earliest reference to us comes from China in 2697 BC. At that time we had about 30 wild species, and we only came in red, orange and yellow. We were completely happy living in Asia, but humans had other ideas. In 1596 they brought us to England. Orange lilies like me were carried over to the US in the late 1800s. Pioneers liked us because we look beautiful without much fussing. We don’t get sick, we resist pests, and we’ll grow in almost any type of soil and climate, from Canada to California. All we need is some sun.

B: Okay, so how did you get from pioneer gardens to highway ditches?

D: We escaped! We’re so good at surviving in North America that we can grow and spread on our own. In fact, in some states we’re considered a noxious weed. That’s the price of success, I guess.

B: I guess so! So what species of daylily are you? You look…frillier…than the ones I see on the side of the road.

D: Goodness, humans have done so much breeding I don’t know what species I am anymore! In the early 1900 they decided they wanted bigger, brighter, and more colourful daylilies. And what humans want, humans generally get. Now we come in over 70,000 varieties, and in every colour of the rainbow except white and blue.

B: Wow, they must really like you!

D: Yup, I’m pretty popular. They like me in their gardens, but they don’t take advantage of my good looks in a bouquet. I don’t know why, because I’d be good at that. Is something wrong?

B: Sorry, I’m a little distracted. Your petals…they’re, they’re sparkling!

D: Yep, humans call this Diamond dusting. There are tiny crystals in our cells that make our petals sparkle! Only a few varieties have this trait. Pick me, I’m so fancy!

B: That aphid’s certainly picked you. Want me to brush her off?

D: Ewww, yes please! Interestingly enough, that species of aphid only feeds on daylilies. Aren’t we special? Slugs and snails also like to munch on our leaves.

B: Do you have other special characteristics?

D: Well, I happen to be a tetroploid.

B: A tetra-what-now?
D: It means I have four sets of chromosomes instead of just two. Originally daylilies had 22 chromosomes. In 1960s, breeders discovered they could double this number by treating us with colchicine, a chemical from a crocus. If a human had double the chromosomes, they would be in major trouble, but plants are special. For daylilies, the more DNA, the better! Daylilies with 44 chromosomes have larger, thicker petals and brighter colours. Nature is strange sometimes.

B: Indeed it is. Well, after that great story, it’s the least I can do to pollinate you.

D: Works every time!

References:

A Great Visual daylily dictionary. Click each part to see detailed photos and definitions http://www.daylilies.org/ahs_dictionary/ImageMap.html

http://www.canadiangardening.com/plants/perennials/falling-for-daylilies/a/1808/3
http://www.canadiangardening.com/plants/perennials/falling-for-daylilies/a/1808
http://www.daylilies.org/AHSFAQsNew.html
http://www.mikesbackyardgarden.org/daylilygen.html
http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/153082/daylily
http://eol.org/pages/1000843/overview
https://www.canadapost.ca/cpo/mc/personal/collecting/stamps/2012/2012_mar_daylilies.jsf
http://www.daylilydiary.com/gardenH.htm
http://www.heirloomorchardist.com/the_heirloom_orchardist/the-heirloom-daylily-or-day-lily.html
http://www.heirloomorchardist.com/the_heirloom_orchardist/the-heirloom-daylily-or-day-lily.html
http://taglilien-hemerocallis.de/history_en.html

Farming a wild food: Saskatoon berries

The low-profile Saskatoon berry has fed Western Canadians for centuries. Photo by dbarronoss, First Fruits, CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/dbarronoss/526020146/

The low-profile Saskatoon berry has fed Western Canadians for centuries. Photo by dbarronoss, First Fruits, CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/dbarronoss/526020146/

If you’ve never heard of Saskatoon berries, you’re not alone. For one thing, this Canadian berry goes by many different names. Secondly, they’re just not very popular. At least, not yet.

I know about Saskatoon berries because I’m from Alberta. Outside of the Prairie Provinces, few people know that they even exist. This is because, unlike strawberries, farmers only started growing Saskatoons commercially in the 1970s. That hasn’t given them much time to develop a market.

Let’s get better acquainted with this berry. After all, it’s an important part of Canadian history.

Rose red

Saskatoon berries look like big blueberries, but they are actually more closely related to apples! Mind blown! Saskatoons belong of the rose family, Rosaceae, while blueberries hang out in the Ericaceae family. In fact, many other fruits like apples, peaches, plums and cherries belong to Rosaceae.

True Canadians

Saskatoon berry bushes are really strong, so strong that wind storms can’t blow them over. This is essential when you live in the prairies where there is nothing to block the wind. European settlers used this strong wood to make umbrella handles and fish poles. I guess you don’t want your umbrella bending in a windstorm!

Saskatoon bushes grow underground using suckers which pop out a thicket of bushes. They don’t mind the cold either, and can stand winters of -60 C! Brrr! No wonder they’re found all over Canada.

How sweet it is

There are 10-15 species of Amelanchier (the Saskatoon berry genus) native to Canada. All of these species have edible berries that are red-purple, and sweet and juicy.

Amelanchier berries are sweeter than blueberries and raspberries, with a sugar content of 20%. However, not all plants are created equal, and the taste of the berry will have a lot to do with what is in the soil and how much rain they’ve had. The berries I picked at the top of the plant were kind of sun-dried. It was 30 degrees, after all!

Humans aren’t the only animal to snack on Amelanchier berries. Squirrels, chipmunks, woodpeckers and waxwings all like these sweet berries. Bushes are also home sweet home for cardinals and robins.

Humans may like the berries, but bees like the blossoms! The white flowers pop out early, from March to June, making them perfect breakfast food for bees just waking up from hibernation.

Fur trade energy bars

Saskatoon berries have been around for hundreds of years, and the Aboriginal peoples of Western Canada took full advantage of them. They ate the berries raw, or preserved them by cooking them and then drying them in brick-like cakes that could be reconstituted as needed.

When Europeans came to trade Saskatoons were valuable trade items. Mixed with buffalo meat and fat to make pemmican, they became the original energy bar. Fur traders lived on this stuff when they were travelling.
Saskatoon berries were also eaten by early settlers in Western Canada. Sometimes the only fruit available, and were particularly good at keeping farmers alive during the 1930s drought.

Mini Pharmacies

Saskatoons are a great source of vitamin C and minerals like iron and copper. No scurvy here! They also have lot of antioxidants that help our immune system, twice as many as blueberries do. Due to their large edible seeds, Saskatoons also have twice as much fibre as blueberries. Poor blueberries! But blueberries have an edge on the market.

Interestingly, Saskatoon berry seeds are poisonous just like an apple’s, so don’t eat buckets of them! If you cook or dry them, the poison disappears.

Domestication how-to

In the 1970s Saskatoon berries started being grown commercially in Canada. They are in the early stages of domestication and farmers still have a lot to learn about diseases and pests. Most farms let customers to do their own picking. However, a few use machines designed for harvesting blueberries.

Most farms are in the Prairie Provinces, where Saskatoons are the second largest commercial crop.

Who can say whether this emerging industry will bloom? Only time will tell. In the meantime, get out to a U-pick and try some for yourselves!

References

http://saskatoonberrycouncil.com/sbcc/about-sbcc/processing.php
http://saskatoonberrycouncil.com/sbcc/health.php

Click to access saskatoon.pdf


http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/en/article/saskatoon-berry/
http://www.gov.mb.ca/agriculture/crops/production/fruit-crops/saskatoon-berries.html
http://cwf-fcf.org/en/discover-wildlife/flora-fauna/flora/serviceberries.html
http://saskatoonberrycouncil.com/sbcc/about-sbcc/history.php

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