The Acorn Mystery of 2020

The Year 2020 has had no shortage of interesting events, challenges, and mysteries, big and small. Having multiple tropical storms in a year surely counts as a challenge and a mystery. But who knew that a smaller mystery involves not being able to find enough acorns!

It all started innocently enough. One of the projects of the newly formed Ocean Springs Environmental Committee is the promotion of our tree canopy, especially live oaks. What better way to highlight these iconic trees than to propagate them from the acorns of named trees and give seedlings away. So, how hard could it be to scoop up acorns from under a named tree?

And that is when the mystery began. Beginning with the Ruskin Oak in Ocean Springs and now extending to live oaks across the coast, our team of intrepid acorn seekers have come up empty handed! Well not quite, as I have collected three acorns, each from different trees, but I digress.

Our friends in the colder parts of the country have snow that crunches under their feet. Southerners have acorns underfoot in years of heavy mast production: mast referring to the fruit of forest trees like oaks. Heavy mast does not occur every year from our oaks, but surely we could expect to be able to collect enough to plant some.

My good friend David Minkler is one of the best arborist that I know and he and I are on the hunt for an answer to this mystery. Conspiracy theories aside, we have been scratching our heads contemplating what happen to the Live Oak Acorns of 2020. Water Oaks and Darlington Oaks have shed plenty of acorns this year. So, what gives with Live Oaks?

Part of the story lies with the cycle of acorn production following heavy mast years. In these years, trees expend so much energy producing acorns that there is little extra for the following year. There will be some, but not a lot. The last heavy mast year on the coast was in 2018. Acorns in the Red Oak group of species also take two years to mature following pollination. Under this scenario, the acorns that would have formed from pollination in the spring of 2019 should be on the ground this fall.

So, although we shouldn’t have expected a lot of acorns from the reproduction cycle of 2019, why are there virtually none! Possible explanations include poor weather conditions during pollination or factors that we may not fully understand. But alas, those answers will have to wait. For now, this story is yet another one of Mother Nature’s twisted tales that keep us thinking. This has been an underlying theme of my stories and I hope it causes you to take the time to stop, look, listen, and learn about the nature all around us.

As for this mystery, you can help David and I by letting us know if you find Live Oak acorns under your trees this year. As scientists, we cannot pass up the opportunity to document the Year Without Live Oak Acorns. Let us know what you do or do not find.

Hope to see you in our great outdoors!

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Written by Mark W. LaSalle, Ph.D.

Mark is a naturalist and wetland ecologist, providing expertise on wetlands, water quality and environmental impacts of humans. He has also developed and conducted a number of environmental education programs and workshops for youth, teachers, realtors, and the general public on a variety of subjects including wetlands, natural history, and environmental landscaping. Mark is a graduate of the University of Southwestern Louisiana (B.S. and M.S. degrees) and Mississippi State University (Ph.D.). Mark is the recipient of the Chevron Conservation Award, the Mississippi Wildlife Federation Conservation Educator Award, the Gulf Guardian Award, and the Boy Scouts of America Silver Beaver Award.

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