It's Nuts How Many Nuts Are Falling This Fall

Posted: October 09, 1991

Ah, fall. Glorious fall.

The leaves are falling, as usual. The nuts are falling, as usual.

Wow - look out! - are they - ouch! - ever.

It's a deluge of nuts, some say.

"This year was a tremendous year for anything that was fruiting . . . acorns, walnuts, hickory nuts," said Robert Herald, an assistant curator at Longwood Gardens near Kennett Square in Chester County.

Why?

It was the summer, right?

Did the long, hot summer cause trees to decide that their end was near, that they should send forth multitudes of their young to inhabit a world that they would never see?

That was the reason, right?

"It's hard to put a reason on it," said Kim Steiner, professor of forest genetics at Pennsylvania State University.

"I've heard this thing about the drought stimulating trees to be fruitful and multiply," he said. "That's a quick and easy answer.

"To some extent, it's true that trees will respond to stress by reproducing. But that doesn't explain what is going on."

The drought-produced-the-nuts theory, he suggested, partakes of the fallacy that, when one event happens after another event, it must have happened

because of the other.

"Some nuts falling this autumn were flowers in the spring of 1990 and were . . . in bud in the late summer of 1989," he said. "You've got to suppose the trees were able to anticipate this drought by two years."

Then why this monsoon, this deluge of nuts?

"Nut production, fruit production in general, tends to be very cyclical in forest trees," Steiner said. For instance, "oaks typically produce heavily every three or four years."

In the Pine Barrens of South Jersey, they sure are.

"In this region of the state, the top nut producer has been the chestnut oak, the white oak, the black oak," said John Benton, a regional forester at Lebanon State Forest in Burlington County.

The proof is in the milk jugs.

State foresters have encouraged teachers to take elementary school children into South Jersey forests and use the jugs to collect acorns for future oak plantings there.

"Probably about a thousand pounds of acorns have been collected through Burlington and Ocean Counties," Benton said, "20 acorns to the pound."

No slim harvest there.

And the reason? Cycles.

"It may be two, three years between cycles" for one kind of tree, Benton said, "in some, six years between cycles."

This year, some trees are riding their cycles very, very fast.

Some are not.

"I'd had a request for acorns from a couple of our historic trees a week or two ago . . . a scarlet oak and a pin oak," said Jack Potter, horticulturist for Scott Arboretum at Swarthmore College in Delaware County.

"I found no acorns under the first," he said, "and rather few under the second."

Then he looked under the college's chestnut trees. "A good crop of chestnuts."

And in Philadelphia?

At Morris Arboretum in Chestnut Hill, where a summer storm blew down scores of venerable trees, the venerable trees that survived are fruitful.

"Yes, this is a good year, acorns are falling all over the place, lots of hickories and walnuts," said arboretum director Paul W. Meyer.

Perhaps it's all a plot by the trees to dupe the squirrels.

"Squirrels are going to go out and bury them all," Meyer said of the plentiful nuts. By the end of spring, he said, the nuts that the squirrels dutifully bury, but neglect to dig up and devour, will become "the trees of the future."

So once every couple of years, ingenious trees produce scads of nuts to surreptitiously ensure that squirrels don't eat them all, so that some can become new trees?

With a laugh, Meyer said, "I can only speculate."

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