Acorns are one of the most iconic nuts produced by a tree. They can be found almost anywhere in North America. If you’ve found an acorn, or maybe a whole bunch of them, you may be wondering which tree it came from and what you can do with it?
Acorns are only produced by oak trees. Each acorn contains one seed that may or may not grow into its own oak tree. There are several things you can do with acorns. You can leave them out for wildlife, plant them, make them into flour, or use them in recipes and crafts.
Read on to find out where acorns come from and all the different things you can do with them! We’ll talk about other trees and what they produce as well so you can be sure you’re dealing with an acorn and not something else.
Where Do Acorns Come From?
So, where exactly do acorns come from?
Acorns only grow on mature oak trees, some of which may have to be twenty or more years old before producing their first batch of acorns!
Oaks are the only trees with acorns, but there are plenty of other trees out there that produce similar nut-like fruits. So if you’ve ever confused acorns with other tree nuts, you’re not alone.
Are All Acorns The Same?
When you hear the word ‘acorn,’ you probably have a pretty vivid picture in your mind of what it looks like. A small, round nut with a distinctive cap on top. While this is what a lot of acorns look like, not all of them are exactly the same.
Some, like the Valley Oak and Coast Live Oak, have oblong shapes. Others have varying colors. The Blackjack Oak and Pin Oak have lighter-colored acorns than, say, a Chestnut Oak or Bur Oak.
You get the point. Each tree has its own unique acorn shape and color.
There are about 90 types of oak trees in North America, but they are broadly categorized into two different groups: red oaks and white oaks.
The main difference between these two groups is when the acorns germinate. White oaks can typically sprout up in the same season the acorns fell, whereas red oak acorns will only sprout the following spring due to their need for a dormancy period that happens in the wintertime.
In addition to these differences, certain acorns are better for certain purposes. For example, white oak acorns are best for eating because they have the least concentration of tannin, a compound that makes the acorn taste bitter.
What To Do With Oak Acorns
Acorns are a surprisingly versatile nut. Unlike foraging for mushrooms, acorns are pretty easy to distinguish from other fallen tree nuts that may be dangerous or inedible.
Back in the day, acorns were a staple food for Native Americans and early settlers. Its dense and highly nutritious properties made it an excellent meal or pasted to have with bread or meat.
Without further delay, let’s take a look at all the things you can do with your neighborhood acorns!
If you’re interested, you can learn how to plant acorns or use a sapling to grow an oak tree here!
Acorns are surprisingly nutritious. According to the University of Utah, they contain protein, carbs, and the good type of fat that’s commonly associated with other nuts. They also contain calcium, potassium, phosphorus, and B vitamins.
Foragers refer to acorns as wild starch. One of the reasons they were so important to early settlers and Native Americans is because they contain a decent amount of carbs. Before farming, starches were hard to come by in the wild!
With all of that in mind, it’s important to note that acorns should not be eaten raw. Acorns contain a compound called tannin that is toxic to humans, dogs, and a few other critters like horses and cattle.
Acorns are not the only tree nut that is toxic before being processed and sold for human consumption. Cashews have similar issues. The nut itself is not toxic, but the shell that encases the cashews are.
But, don’t be alarmed by the revelation that acorns cannot be eaten raw. To make them edible is a simple process of boiling them for at least five minutes or soaking them in cool water. This leaches out the tannins, making the acorn perfectly edible.
How Exactly Do You Eat acorns?
There are TONS of recipes out there that use acorns as an ingredient. But if you’re looking to just dip your toes into the wild starch world, there are two simple recipes you can try: candied acorns and caramelized acorns.
White Oak acorns are considered the best type to eat because they contain the least amount of tannins and therefore have a less bitter taste.
Candied acorns use three simple ingredients: acorns, butter, and brown sugar. Simply quarter your acorn meat, boil them for at least five minutes, and then saute the pieces in butter. Add enough brown sugar to coat the acorns. Once the sugar and butter thicken, they’re done!
Carmelized acorns use the same technique, but you’ll be adding cinnamon and a splash of water to the saute mixture. These will take a little longer to cook, around twenty minutes, before the mixture thickens up around the acorns.
Use Acorns For Baking
In the same vein as consuming acorns, you can also use them for baking!
You can make and use acorn flour in place of regular flour at a 1:1 ratio. Easy enough, right? Acorn flour has a nutty and sweet flavor and contains a little more nutrition than typical all-purpose flour.
The only problem with making acorn flour is that it takes quite a bit of time—days, in fact. The reason is that you must cold-leach the tannins out of your acorns as opposed to our boiling technique mentioned above.
Cold-leaching has some important benefits when it comes to flour. It leaves important starches in the acorn meat that will help the flour stick to itself. If you boil the acorns, it will still work, but the flour will not be as consistent a texture as you would have with all-purpose flour.
So, if you’ve collected your acorns and you have some time (and patience. And more time), you can make your own acorn flour!
So, we can eat acorns, and we can bake with them. What else can you do with acorns?
Leave Acorns Alone
If you’re a fan of having wildlife around, such as deer, squirrels, and chipmunks, you can simply let your acorns be.
Oak trees, in general, provide squirrels and other climbing critters with shelter and homes. If you leave the acorns on the trees or do not disturb them when they drop, it’s likely to attract some wildlife.
According to the University of Florida, acorns provide over 100 different species of animals with food. Foxes, opossums, turkey, wild hogs, and quail, just to name a few.
Acorns are such an impactful food item that wildlife will often shift their home ranges when acorns are abundant. Home ranges become smaller, and less nuisance activity is reported during abundant acorn years.
So, if you’re not into baking and not interested in trying to cook acorns, consider leaving them on the trees and on the ground so the wildlife around you can enjoy them.
Our next suggestion is to plant the acorns you find. This is something that can be fun for the whole family. If successful, the oak tree can live for decades, if not centuries.
If you’re curious, you can check out the full details on how long it takes to grow an oak tree here.
All in all, planting oak trees from acorns isn’t too hard of a process. It can take as little as a few weeks to see sprouts popping out of the ground from your acorns, but it can take up to 30 years for an oak tree to mature and start producing its own acorns.
If you decide to plant the acorns you find, you’ll be doing nature a favor. Oak trees provide plenty of shade and shelter to all the little critters around. Acorns from local oak trees are also more likely to thrive in that area because they are already used to the soil and weather conditions.
You can also check out the best time to plant an oak tree to make sure you’re planting your acorns and transplanting your saplings at the right time!
Use Acorns for Arts and Crafts
Acorns, along with pumpkins, yellow leaves, and scarecrows, are some of the quintessential things associated with fall. When you start seeing acorns on the ground, you know fall is coming!
For this reason, you can use acorns for a variety of crafts and decorations. Acorns are easy to handle because of their size, and you can use both the nut part and the cap part as decorations.
You can make wreaths, photo frames, place them in mason jars, and even make candles out of them! There are plenty of ideas circulating around the internet that can make your home nice and cozy as the colder months come through.
What Fruits and Nuts Do Trees Produce?
We now know that oak trees produce acorns, but what about the other nuts and seeds we see littering the ground? Where do they come from?
The table below lists some of the common trees and the fruits or nuts they produce.
|Maple||Samaras also known as “helicopters” or “whirligigs”||Seeds in the center with two distinct wings on each side - typically red or brown in color||Yes: seed pods are edible|
|Pine||Pine Nuts||Seeds are encased in the pine cone||Yes: but can be bothersome to get at and are typically very small|
|Walnut||Walnut Fruit||Round green casing around light brown stone fruit||Yes: can be eaten raw but often taste better toasted|
|Birch||Samaras||Elongated drooping flowers hold seeds that have small wings||Not reccomended|
|Beech||Beechnuts also known as “mast”||Nuts are contained in a brown spiky case similar to chestnut||Yes: Must be cooked and processed due to saponin glycoside toxin|
|Elm||Samaras||Small, flat green disks||Not reccomended|
|Chestnut||Chestnut||Spikey green-brown bur contains shiny brown nuts||Yes: Must be cooked to remove tannins|
|White Oak||Acorn||Cone shaped nut with a tough, hard top||Yes: Must be cooked or processed|
Let’s take a closer look at the fruits and nuts these trees produce and what you can do with them.
Maple Tree Fruits
Thirteen types of maple trees are native to North America. These thirteen varieties span the entire United States, from coastal plains up to the rocky mountains. Maples are best known for their sap production.
According to the Ohio State University, sugar, black, and red maple provide almost all of the commercial syrup we love to use on our pancakes and waffles. While maple trees are mostly known for their syrup production, their seeds, also called samaras, are also well known.
You may call them helicopters or maybe whirligigs. Either way, they’re fun to watch fall from the trees in the springtime. They’re also edible and can be eaten right from the tree!
If you’re interested, you can read more about the differences between oak and maple trees here!
Pine Tree Fruits
Fruits are mainly meant to protect the seed of the tree so that it can find its way to the ground and eventually sprout into a tree itself. But some trees just don’t have fruits.
Pine tree seeds are encased in the well-known pine cone. This cone is not considered a fruit but protects the seed all the same. The seed is known as a pine nut and can be very tasty.
However, most varieties have seeds that are so small they are not worth the bother of digging through the pine cone. If you’re looking for the best pine nuts in North America, look for the Pinyon Pine. It only grows between 6- and 9-thousand foot elevations.
Walnut Tree Fruit
Like pine nuts and acorns, walnuts seem to be a wintery nut. Our parents and grandparents set them out in bowls alongside a nutcracker at holiday gatherings.
Walnuts are best picked in late summer and fall when the meat of the nut is mature. Walnut trees that are at least twenty years old will produce the best walnuts, which can be eaten raw. However, toasted walnuts will taste the best.
Like acorns, walnuts may come in waves of high production and low production. One year you might see tons, while the next year may yield very little.
Birch Tree Fruits
The birch tree is a forager’s best friend. It’s one of the most edible trees out there. According to Washington College of Maryland, you can eat the bark, twigs, buds, and even the leaves, which have a minty flavor.
The seeds of the birch tree are samaras, meaning they are winged. They do not look like the well-known helicopters of the maple tree; instead, they look like very small clusters drooping at the end of branches.
Although most of the rest of the birch tree is edible, it’s not suggested to eat the seeds due to the bitter flavor.
Beech Tree Fruits
Like most of the trees on our list, beech trees produce edible fruits.
Beechnuts are the fruit of beech trees and are encased in spiny brown fruit. You can eat a few beechnuts raw with little repercussions, but they should really be soaked before eating to leech out a toxin called saponin glycoside.
Similar to acorns, beech tree fruits may have toxins but can be easily leached out by soaking or boiling them. Afterward, they are quite tasty! According to North Carolina University, they ripen in the fall.
Elm trees are used for many different purposes, including providing shade and used in furniture and flooring manufacturing. Yale University states it is a flexible wood often used to make hockey sticks as well.
The fruit of the elm tree is a samara, meaning it is winged and carried on the wind.
Like the maple tree samaras, elm samaras ripen and float off the branches in the spring.
Chestnut Tree Fruits
If you’re not too familiar with what a chestnut fruit casing looks like, you may be surprised! They are green to brown spiky balls that fall to the ground. I don’t know about you, but as a kid, we used to whip these at each other for fun!
And never did we know there was such a delicious nut inside! Like acorns, chestnuts must be cooked or soaked before consumption due to high tannin content. You’ll know your chestnuts are ready to eat when they no longer taste bitter.
Bringing It All Together
That’s all we have on what trees have acorns and what you can do with them! As you can tell, acorns have tons of uses, from eating and baking to decorating and planting.
To recap, acorns only come from oak trees. They can be all different shapes and sizes. Acorns should not be eaten raw due to their tannin content but can easily be boiled or soaked to remove the tannin and make them edible. You can also use acorns for decoration, wildlife viewing, and planting your very own oak tree.
Plenty of other trees produce fruit, such as maples, chestnuts, and beech. The fruits are meant to protect the seed, which we often call a tree nut.
The next time you see an acorn on the ground while walking the neighborhood or in a park, you might have a new perspective on all the possible uses of an acorn.
Donleavy-Johnston, S. (1995). Medicinal uses of acorn: An ethnobotanic and experimental study [The Union Institute Dissertation Paper]. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.
Gribko, L. S., & Jones, W. E. (1995). Test of the float method of assessing northern red oak acorn condition. Tree Planters’ Notes, 46(4), 143-147.
Taib, M., Rezzak, Y., Bouyazza, L., & Lyoussi, B. (2020). Medicinal Uses, Phytochemistry, and Pharmacological Activities of Quercus Species.