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The Oaks: Acorns Create a New World

February 6, 2020

Acorns Create a New World by Ken Asmus

To me finding an acorn is like finding a treasure. I had acorns given to me from all over: the white house in Washington, D.C., a tree that a monk lived in 900 years ago and even the well known one near Taco Bell’s dumpster. Acorns to me are comforting. While visiting the 911 Memorial in New York City, I picked up a couple of swamp white oak acorns to hold while reading the names of people to help me calm my agitated mind.

For a while prior to producing our own acorns, Oikos Tree Crops was acorn central purchasing and exchanging acorns from a wide range of oak enthusiasts, seed collectors and local parks. Here are a few stories about the origins of our oak mini-forests at Oikos Tree Crops and those who help create the rich diverse genetic heritage of our tree crop farm of all things Quercus.

Living in a Van Down By the River

The nursery industry is known for being cheap and such is he case for purchasing seeds from collectors. When a homeless man that lived in his van near the Kalamazoo river approached me about collecting acorns I told him “double it” meaning I would pay twice what other nurseries were paying. This I believed would mean I would get the good stuff as well as helping him out of his predicament to some extent. He found a number of large hybrid oaks called Bebbs oak, a natural cross of white and bur oak. I don’t think he was a motivational speaker or living on a steady diet of government cheese but he really did understand the subtle differences of acorns while sorting them. He found one really old Bebbs oak in a park. Apparently, I knew jack squat! We grew many of these trees and eventually we kept about 50 of the most vigorous with intermediate characteristics of the species. Over time we were able to produce a hybrid swarm of magnificent trees from his collecting. Looking back I guess he was motivational. For those not familiar the character played by Chris Farley on SNL please see: Van Down By the River

It might help explain what the heck you just read.

PhD Candidate of Neuro-Physiology

The brain is a complex organ. Oaks are a complex genus. That was the connection I made with this fantastic collector. Having a large farm in Kansas he too needed acorns and his PhD candidacy just happened to be at a university with an abandoned oak planting left from a previous professor. Prior to ye ole internetty, he sent me dozens of pictures and some amazing acorn samples. I loved talking to him on the phone. He really understood oak trees. I purchased hundreds of pounds from him which I had hoped helped him in some extent with his education as it helped me in my collection. Here is a Secret: No one in the nursery industry likes arboretum seeds. Horror: They could be hybrids and not true to type. Ironic for an industry that touts itself as promoting diversity, God forbid every plant be genetically different. Luckily that is all I wanted for my nursery and my plantings that went into the open field.

WWII Veteran Does The Impossible

When someone says ” I am breeding oaks” and they are doing it by hand pollination, you have to wonder “is that possible?” It turned out we both shared the wonder and lure of the edible acorn and this was his main goal using grafted and seedling progeny he had found or created. Having tried so many different techniques he discovered that his best success came with what he called,” behaving like a bumblebee” and using an empty bic pen. By carefully blowing pollen onto the female flowers he could get an acorn to form with a certain precision that eluded even the most skilled researcher. Much later that he told me his vision was impaired with only one percent available so it was kind of like looking through a pin hole. (He was legally blind but he said it was a good one percent.) Seeing the images sent to me of him on a ladder in his trees must of drove his family crazy. I did purchase the few acorns he had but mostly to make a planting here. When I heard he donated the money to a charity that works with the blind, I could see how selfless he really was. Talking to him on the phone was like therapy to me mixed with a certain comic relief which was sometimes related to his service. Being of German descent, I had to reassure him he didn’t shoot any of my relatives on D Day of which he was a participant. This was a kind of lets see if I can throw Ken out of his element type of conversation. There was always one good laugh every time I called him. His backyard research uncovered a certain flexibility within the oak genus that made the impossible possible. He was a genius with this genus.

My Park Experiences-Collecting Acorns to Create Oak Trees

One of the problems trying to get good acorns is finding an easily accessible place to collect. The local city parks were ideal. The smooth grass was a perfect place for an acorn to land. I had to plan it out according to the season figuring in wind and storm drops. Being in a park I soon discovered that people avoided me. Dressed in Carhart, I was perfectly camouflaged like a brown lump scooting along with my pails. The having-a-smoke crowd of high schoolers skipping school, the homeless, couples eating their fast food lunches in their cars and even the religious looking for converts seemed to make a circle around me. I was ‘unsaveable’. The city park people knew me by name and in the end I was kind of an oddity to them. They would wave and keep driving. Nothing going on here. I did this over the course of a decade and no one ever greeted me.

I use to see a lot of fox squirrels. I really thought that they were staring at me looking down from their perch and wondering what sort of diet I was on that would require so many acorns. Twice it happened where right above my head I could hear their toe nails getting ripped off the bark by red tailed hawks swooping in. I think the hawks realized, “Look that squirrel is way too distracted with that nutty acorn collecting dude.”

It was just another day collecting acorns. My oak forest had begun.

copyright@OIKOS TREE CROPS 2020

“Rocket” Red Oak: This red oak is a seedling I planted in the early-mid 90’s. There was one seedling in our seed beds of over 3000 trees that had nearly triple the growth rate of the others. I planted this tree and was surprised by its fast growth rate over the years with a strong upright growth habit and an open crown. It is now over 60 ft. tall. Distributed as a cultivar called, “Rocket” for a while we started collecting acorns from it last year and will have the seedlings of it for sale this fall. The parent tree where I collected the acorns was a roadside tree that had unusual elongated acorns for a red oak and was found west of Kalamazoo, Michigan while on a bicycle ride.

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