By Beth Daley, Globe Staff
I don’t tend to notice them each fall until my shoe crunches on one during a walk or they drop on my car hood when it's parked under an oak tree.
But this year, it’s hard to miss the massive number of acorns raining down on the New England landscape. From backyards in Northampton to city streets in Providence, many oak trees appear to be producing a healthy – if not record-breaking – crop of the nut.
|Chimpmunk with acorn (Globe photo)|
Oaks don’t produce acorns every year, scientists say. Trees tend to produce one bumper crop every two to seven years and then a small crop the following year, for reasons researchers still don't fully understand. It can take two years for an acorn to form from an oak flower and a tree’s production likely hinges on everything from weather conditions at the time of the flowering to natural variance among trees.
Yet that acorn crop can determine if winter will mean survival for squirrels, chipmunks, blue jays, mice and other animals – or starvation.
“Acorns form the base of the wildlife food community, there are so many animals that feed on acorns,” said John Scanlon, forestry project leader for the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. Indeed, when there are no acorns around my neighborhood, squirrels seem to dig up virtually every tulip bulb I plant. When there are acorns, they leave them alone.
Scanlon says the crop on state lands appear to be a typical year while several readers and forestry experts say it appears to be a particularly heavy acorn year in swaths North of Boston near the New Hampshire border, parts of Southeastern Massachusetts and Western Massachusetts.
Red oak leaves
New England is home to at least 10 different kinds of oak trees, and the acorn has long played a role in local culture. Acorns have long believed to bring luck. UPDATE: I said earlier that acorns could be toxic to humans, but I have since been corrected. They do contain bitter tannins that usually are removed by soaking the nuts.
Folk wisdom even dictates that a big autumn acorn crop is a harbinger of a tough winter.
So important is the oak, state forestry officials try to identify prolific acorn producers before they log an area to identify trees that are producing lots of acorns to leave it alone.
While some people complain about the mess the acorns make, Scanlon says “we ask people to put with the acorns because they are a fundamental part of the total forest ecosystem,’’ said Scanlon.
In 2004, the region suffered an acorn drought in many places, likely because of back to back droughts a few years prior. And thousands of oak trees in Southeastern Massachusetts are in the midst of a massive die-off from leaf-eating caterpillars, fungi and beetles.
What kind of acorn year are you having?