foraging wild food

The Might Valley Oak (Quercus lobata)

This year the mighty Valley Oaks, (Quercus lobata), are taking a rest from acorn production. Last year we had a bumper crop, or a masting, where it’s acorn foraging heaven.
This year virtually zero acorns are being produced. I’ve found acorns on only a few trees, and most of them are full of worms (weevil larvae.)

“Is this a bad year for acorns?” I get asked this type of question a lot. For Valley Oaks, (the only really available human forage producer here), the question itself is incorrect. It would better be asked, “is this a year for the Valley Oak acorns?” For as surprising as it is, these trees over hundreds of miles of California are are pretty much on the same cycle. They’ll either all fruit heavily, or none of them fruit at all. Thousands and thousands of trees over hundreds of miles! I think that’s incredible! There are only a few exceptions to either scenario. There are exceptions, but they are safely less than 10%, my personal data shows that they are less than 1%. So I use definitive terms such as “all” and “zero”, but these terms equate to very few or the vast majority. I use them to emphasize the feeling of extremeness of the scarcity and abundance of the different years.

So is it a bumper year or a zero year? This year, it’s a zero, as we had a bumper year last year. You do not get bumpers in consecutive years.
The cycles since I’ve been personally observing have gone like this:
2004 — huge crop (nobody seem to notice but me)
2005 — virtually none
2006 — virtually none
2007 — huge crop (articles in the paper about it, lots of people talking about it)
2008 — virtually none
2009 — huge crop (momentum continued. Saw high school kids for schoolwork out gathering acorns, more articles written and classes taught about acorns.)

Let’s pray that 2011 brings us the blessings of this amazing food!

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6 thoughts on “The Might Valley Oak (Quercus lobata)

  1. Do you not use quercus agrifolia? I tried a batch of them a couple of weeks ago, but after leeching them for 3 days they were still unbearably bitter! I figured that maybe they weren’t ripe enough.

    I found a lovely big q. lobata, but haven’t seen any acorns so far…

  2. I don’t typically use Q. agrifolia for a couple of reasons, one of which you already touched upon. They are in the “red oak” family thus they have the yellow acorns containing way more tannins than the Q. lobata “white oak” with white acorns. The other reason that I rarely work with them is that often they are half rotten from worms and disease.

  3. Thanks Kevin, I found this reassuring. This Autumn it doesn’t look like any of the nut trees in my region (SE England) have decided to produce much of a crop. I was out & about today feeling very depressed in all the places where I’d picked up bumper harvests at around the same time last year (my first for beech, oak and hazel), now only finding empty shell casings and the odd mushroom. What happened to my caloric staples??

    My friend thought it had something to do with an unusually dry summer followed by brief spells of heavy rain. Only the sweet and horse chestnuts (currently experimenting with the latter for acorn-style leached flour as PFAF suggest) seem to have matured properly, but all the rest either chose not to or dropped them prematurely after the rains. I’m watching the squirrels to see if they act more competitively than usual…

    So yeah, I read somewhere that beech trees only produced nuts once every three years, but I thought it varied from tree-to-tree, not “good year / bad year” across the board. Your post quells my anxiety that we might be about to lose all our nut trees through some freaky sterility-causing disease! Onto the roots and winter berries…


  4. Update: Hit the motherload of q. lobata, lots of acorns. Not as many as the bitter oaks around them, but enough to harvest a substantial amount. I also found some lovely fat scrub acorns and leeched them, but then they were totally tasteless which I’m not sure is worth all that hard work :).

    Should be the same in NorCal, with the lobata, no?

  5. I visited some friends for supper last night and had the finest tasting acorn cakes i ever had – 2/3 acorn flour, 1/3 oat flour – not a whisper of bitterness. Which bestirs me to comment on the method i see so frequently recommended: repeated boiling and rinsing. I find it hard to imagine any nutrients surviving that treatment, especially water-soluble heat labile vitamins. Here’s how my friends made theirs: they dry the acorns in the shell until they could pass thru a burr-mill – i didn’t see the devise but it sounds like my Corona grain mill with the ability to be set with plates much wider; many nuts get cracked in large pieces, but not meal. They then grind the hard nuts into meal and put that in a very fine-mesh bag (actually i think they said a cotton filter bag such as is used for straining maple syrup). This they placed in a bucket of icy water with, if i remember correctly, a slow pipe flow coming from their spring. They left this for a week and a half, then dried the flour. I disremember further details, perhaps because i was so busy wolfing down the delicious cakes (not merely edible, delightful). These were from red oaks, the mainliest kind we have in the Western Foothills, and among the bitterest. You can find my friends at Btw, someone commented on using horse chestnuts – unless the know something i don’t, they contain a strong and toxic barbituate; CAUTION!

  6. Thanks for sharing! I agree, and do not recommend the hot leaching method, preferring a cold water leach.

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