Oak Tree Masting Year

We are always observing the activities of the flora and fauna in our yard (native CA ecosystem restoration area), and this past fall, we became quite concerned when we noticed that most of the native Oak trees on our property (which are normally evergreen), were dropping the majority of their leaves, over winter. Were they overly drought-distressed? Succumbing to a disease? We had no idea, but were worried.

Then, as I was reading the amazing book, “Hidden Life of Trees,” I stumbled upon Peter Wohlleben’s description of how nut-bearing trees such as oaks will (in unison) drop a very high proportion of the leaves in their crowns, to make room for the ridiculous number of flowers (and later, the acorns) which they plan to make in the following year, which they have decided (in unison) will be a masting year. Masting years are the years in which the oaks bear a bumper-crop of nuts. They do this only once every several, unpredictable number of years – so as to produce more food than the regular population of nut-predators can possibly consume in a year, thus increasing the likelihood of successful procreation. They risk death by starvation in order to do this, but once masting year is over, they work hard to replace all the leaves they had jettisoned for the masting season.

So, I wrote the question in my diary, last autumn: does the leaflessness of oaks portend a masting year, where we live? Now, in the first warm sunshine after a long, rainy winter, we have the answer…

A masting year, it is! Achoooo!

So now, I know, when the oak leaves drop from a healthy-looking, California Coast Live Oak tree:

  • It is a good omen;
  • Plan to spend time in the autumn, harvesting and processing acorns;
  • Recognize that Nature will provide well for your family in the coming year.


Lesson from a Sweet Meat

It isn’t often that a vegetable headed for the roasting oven offers to its future consumer a loud-and-clear lesson in ethics. And it also isn’t often that I meditate upon the rules of the Honorable Harvest during the spring planting season. But here it is:

Yet another beautiful Cucurbita maxima v. Sweet Meat Squash. And this one is only the fifth of seven that we harvested off of a single 4′-0″ x 7′-0″ raised bed, last September:

The plants produce like crazy. They produce despite our incredibly chilly, foggy, coast-range “summers.” They succumb to powdery mildew at the end of each season, and they simply do not care. Our squash harvest last year – grown from six planted seeds – topped 65 pounds! They keep really well, for a very long time, even on a bookshelf, stored at room temperature: It is now April, and this harvest is still providing solid, well-preserved food for my family.

These beautiful, aqua-blue “pumpkins” are incredibly sweet and richly flavorful. They make superb pies, Afghani braised pumpkin, soups, stews, you name it. Did I mention the pie? The skins are thin and easy to peel. The squash is easy to cut and chop for cooking. The meat is typically at least three inches thick, and the seed cavity, though tiny is simply packed with big, fat, juicy seeds – delightful roasted, with a bit of oil and salt.

Until today, that is.

As I was scooping out the seeds, thinking about enjoying a toasted treat while the sweet meat braised in the oven, I was certain I heard the Squash Spirit speak:

You dropped six seeds on the ground; I grew and grew, magnificent climbing vines, bearing fruit all summer long. You offered a bit of water and compost; I fed your entire family for eight months. And now, you are going to eat all of my seeds, as well? How will I ever have children of my own?

Three of the rules of the Honorable Harvest (from Robin Wall Kimmerer’s wonderful book, Braiding Sweetgrass) are:

Never take more than half; leave some for others.

Give thanks for what you have been given.

Sustain the ones who sustain you and the earth will last forever.

I guess it is really well past time for me to begin thanking the squash plants for all their bounty, and doing a bit of habitual seed-saving. Starting with this squash, and with all others going forward, I plan to pick out the fattest, most beautiful 50% of the seeds (or more), and save them for re-planting, next year. I will share those seeds with neighbors, of both human and non-human kind – to help disperse the mother squash’s seeds, and to provide them more space and resources to grow, and reproduce again.

I can always roast the less-viable seeds.

And you really cannot go wrong with “just” pie.

Nature’s Temples

“Nature’s Temples: The Complex World of Old-Growth Forests,” by Joan Maloof (with illustrations by Andrew Joslin), is a profoundly inspirational work of science writing that describes the structure and ecology of old-growth forests.

The book begins with an awe-inspiring overview of the history of forests on Earth, the earliest known from fossil-records dating from 383 million years ago! Maloof discusses the role of forests in removing carbon from the atmosphere, and the surprising discovery that the largest, oldest trees are far more effective at this task than a multitude of younger, smaller, fast-growing trees. She presents a convincing case for the preservation of old-growth forests, on the grounds that they are essential for the survival and well-being of all other life on Earth.

Maloof then goes on to make the reader fall in love with all the living beings found in old-growth forests, one short chapter at a time. She introduces us, first, to the trees themselves, then one at a time to the birds, amphibians, snails, insects, herb plants, mosses, fungi, lichens, worms and mammals that are resident in old-growth forests. And it is truly a book of wonders.

One of the things I had always wondered was how deer and elk could find sufficient food in an old-growth redwood forest, in which the browsable branch tips are hundreds of feet high. The answer: Although the herbaceous understory might be shaded out, a rain of lichen from the lofty canopy provides ample nitrogen-rich food for them. But what is a lichen? It is a magical symbiotic alliance between photosynthesizing algae and mineral-harvesting fungi! Mushroom salad. And I had no idea how amazingly diverse was the world population of lichens, especially within the remaining old-growth forests.

The most surprising thing I learned from this book was that the (mostly non-native) worms found in North American forests north of the ice-age moraines – areas that had once been covered in glacial ice – are in fact doing more harm than good to the forests in which they are found. In order to develop the rich biodiversity that enables a forest to thrive into grand old age, a thick layer of forest-floor duff must be allowed to accumulate. The moist, decaying duff at the surface of the forest floor supports diverse fungi, which in turn support diverse plant life, and allow for the germination of tree seeds, which might otherwise lie dormant. If too many worms begin churning under the duff, too quickly, that mechanism for growing diversity in the forest is disrupted, impeding the growth and healthy development of the forest! And I had always assumed that worms were good for the trees!

Live and learn.

In fact, there are so many new things to learn, in the pages of “Nature’s Temples,” that the book bears repeated readings. It is a definite must-have volume for the shelves of a Druid library.

Visiting the Giants

by Estifanos (age 6), of California, U.S.A.

Last month, I went to visit the giant redwood trees in Humboldt Redwoods State Park, CA. The trees there reminded me of the Carboniferous Period that I read about in “The Encyclopedia of World History,” because the trees were ten times taller than I thought they would be.  Joan Maloof wrote that this forest could have been about 50 million years old, so, I expected the trees to be about as tall as my kitchen, broken off by lightning strikes and storms, but they were mostly standing, and much much much much much much bigger than I thought!!!

The first fallen tree we found was about twice as wide as I thought it would be. It reminded me of “Sir Cumference and the Knights of the Round Table,” where Radius was as tall as half-way across the fallen tree, and Lady Di of Ameter had a reach equal to the distance across the middle of the tree.  Below, are two pictures of me and my Mama, pretending to be in a Sir Cumference book.

But the biggest fallen tree we found felt like it was a thousand miles long.  We walked for about a half an hour, to get from the roots all the way to the top — which we couldn’t even find. Here are some pictures of what I think must have been the tallest tree on Earth, before it fell.

This is a picture of the tallest tree we saw, still standing.  It is called the Founder’s Tree.

I want people to see this, so that they know about it, because it is the best tree I have ever seen!

Lesson from a Redwood Grandmother


Earlier this week, I drove through a wall of fog to visit the coast redwoods of Muir Woods. They were sparkling in the full glory of their pale-green new growth for the year. And one of them beckoned me to touch her, and learn the reason why she lived so long: though the bulk of her body was strong and tall and tough and protective, her new growth was not merely pliable (as in other evergreens I have met), but the softest, most delicate plant tissue I have ever encountered — far softer than a human infant’s skin. It was like touching warm water. Fluid, gentle, inviting.

It is an odd combination of qualities of character that I think humans would do well to cultivate, too.