Why 2019 is the Year of the Acorn
This is what happens when oak trees get randy.
If you're older than the pyramids like Grumpy, you probably remember the Great New York Blackout of 1965. On November 9 around 5:15 PM, the lights in New York began to flicker and then winked out completely. The blackness soon spread to nine northeastern states and several Canadian provinces.
Power didn't return until 14 hours later the next day. Nine months after, New York experienced a baby boom, because – well – it was dark and there wasn't much else to do.
Something extraordinary like that we humans can't fathom must have affected oak trees this spring, because everybody I talk to about them says they're dropping acorns like nobody's business. When the wind blows, my roof sounds like a firing range. The ground beneath them crunches under every step. Those oaks have been busy.
Why this year? Is it because I played Lady Gaga's songs from A Star Is Born outside this spring? ("Tell me something, girl. Are you happy in this modern world? Or do you need more? Is there something else you're searching for?")
I don't know, but something big happened. Like most nut and fruit trees, oaks typically have heavy-bearing years punctuated by lighter ones needed to build reserves. Also, when a tree bears depends on what kind of oak it is. Those in the white oak group – white oak (Quercus alba), swamp white oak (Q. bicolor), chestnut oak (Q. prinus), bur oak (Q. macrocarpa), etc. – bear mature crops every year. Those in the red oak group, however – red oak (Q. rubra), pin oak (Q. palustris), willow oak (Q. phellos), scarlet oak (Q. coccinea), etc. – do so every two years. Getting them synchronized this year took some doing.
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Naturalists call this phenomenon a "mast year," because the contents of the innumerable acorns – the "mast" – is an essential food source for many kinds of wildlife, including blue jays, wild turkeys, black bears, grouse, chipmunks, black bear, and, unfortunately, wild hogs, deer, and stinking squirrels. Weather alone can't account for mast years – we had record heat and drought in the Southeast from August through mid-October, yet a mast year is here. One thought is that oaks keep mast years random to control the animal populations that eats the acorns. If hordes of critters eat all the acorns, there is nothing left to make more oaks.
The upshot is there is nothing you can do to predict or control mast years, so just sit back and enjoy it. The oaks certainly did.