September is acorn season in the Dakotas. And our local indigenous variety, uskúyeča (Burr Oak) has acorns that are prized for their low tannic acid content. Unlike other varieties that require hours or days of soaking in water to leach out the acids and make them edible, these acorns can be eaten with minimal leaching. Some people don’t even leach them at all. They have a sweet, buttery taste.
Oak groves are rare on the plains, and this was the first year I had access to a good one. I was really looking forward to getting some good acorns. When I saw these beautiful acorns forming on the trees, poking their faces out of their fuzzy basket caps, I excitedly grabbed my camera. I love eating acorns, and I couldn’t wait for the harvest.
But I missed it.
Rookie mistake: I didn’t realize how short acorn season is in the Dakotas.
The last time I had access to good acorn trees, I was living in California. And acorn season works differently there.
I grew up harvesting acorns in the woods with my mom, and have memories of gathering them and making acorn bread. But I was too young, or didn’t pay enough attention, so I don’t remember any of the details when we did it, or of the leaching or grinding them into flour that we must have done.
In college in California, my friends’ mom, an acorn knowledge-keeper from the Hupa Tribe, heard from her kids that I’d been wondering aloud what to do with all these acorns, this abundant food on campus that we were just stepping on and riding our bikes over — and she decided to teach me. We put in a lot of hours. California acorn soup, made with either tanoak or coast live oak acorns, is still one of my favorite foods (and yes, you can really taste the difference). And as a result, even though my ancestry isn’t from California, the bulk of my acorn knowledge is.
In central California (the area around San Francisco), the “first drop” of acorns occurs in about September. The trees drop the diseased acorns first. After First Drop, families would traditionally burn underneath their acorn trees in order to kill the bugs/pathogens and also keep the brush down. (Despite the fact that controlled burns have always been a crucial part of managing California’s ecosystem and preventing larger fires, authorities have nonsensically banned the practice in many areas.)
Then, after the controlled fires that follow First Drop, Second Drop appears — and lately, with climate change, it’s been happening later in late October, and into November. I’ve even harvested fresh acorns in December.
So, when I started seeing acorns rolling around on the ground in September in North Dakota, I assumed it was First Drop. It didn’t occur to me that with snow sometimes starting in October in the Dakotas, the acorn timeline might be different here. And by the time I came to my senses in October and realized that no more acorns were going to fall, the squirrels had eaten all the good ones on the ground.
Lesson learned? We’ll see. I’ll have to pay closer attention. Hopefully I’ll have better luck next fall.