At the end of Robert Morris' 1927 address to the Northern Nut Growers Association, entitled EDIBLE ACORNS AS A FOOD FOR MAN, LIVESTOCK AND FOWLS Morris summarizes his correspondence with oak enthusiasts and experts of the day. Some highlights (at least for me):
"Mr. Ernest H. Wilson, Keeper of the Arnold Arboretum at Jamaica Plain, Mass., sends me the following notes from 'Sturtevant's Notes on Edible Plants.' (pp. 479-82).
"... Q. alba Linn. White Oak. Northeast America. The dried acorns are macerated in water for food by the natives on the Roanoke. Acorns were dried and boiled for food by the Narragansetts. Oak acorns were mixed with their pottage by the Indians of Massachusetts. Baskets full of parched acorns, hid in the ground, were discovered by the Pilgrims December 7, 1620 (ed: talk about a day that will live in infamy!). White oak acorns were boiled for "oyl" by the natives of New England. The fruit of some trees is quite pleasant to the taste, especially when roasted."
Wow. Wow! There's a lot of cool stuff in this little paragraph. You might recall that I recently read Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick, and I remarked on how much damage the native people had done to the landscape in the process of raising corn, and wondered aloud why acorns didn't play a bigger role in the diet of either the indigenous people or the alien settlers - with the exception to one reference to a traveling party stopping for a meal of acorns.
In Philbrick's telling the Pilgrims uncover and steal a cache of corn - not acorns. Now I need to go back and re-read that part to get the chronology right. Native Americans did of course keep caches of corn buried, but they also cached large quantities of acorns - which have a much higher food value and would have been a much greater loss (and therefore a much greater crime on the part of the Pilgrims - religious refugees whose first considered act on this continent was the theft of food).
Something else happened on December 7, 1620. Dorothy Bradford, wife of Plymouth Colony leader William Bradford, fell overboard (the Mayflower was at anchor in Plymouth Bay while a scouting party was ashore pilfering acorns and deciding where to locate the settlement). Officially considered an accident, apparently there's always been some speculation that Dorothy, depressed after a long, harrowing journey during which many friends succumbed to disease, might have committed suicide.
Here's a tip, kids: Early December is probably not the ideal time to show up in New England to establish a colony.
Moving on to the next correspondent: The man who is universally referred to as Mr. H. Ness. (To see previous posts enter Ness in the search bar above.) J. Russell Smith calls him Mr. H. Ness. Moriss calls him Mr. H. Ness. I'm guessing his wife called him Mr. H. Ness.
My money was on a first name of Herman. It's not. It's much better than that. His name was Helge Ness. I think I'd go by "H" as well. Here's what Morris had to say about ol' Helge:
"Mr. H. Ness, horticulturist of the Texas State Experiment Station published an article entitled 'Hybrids of the Live Oak and Overcup Oak" in the Journal of Heredity, Vol. 1X, No. 6, Washington, D. C., October, 1918 and has published subsequent notes making the comment that he has become impressed with the ease with which fertile hybrids may arise between species of oaks (Mr. Darwin, paging Mr. Charles Darwin, please report to Oak Watch for a new definition of species), even though their relationship be apparently quite distinct. A number of second generation trees from the hybrids of Mr. Ness have been obtained and the notes should be added to any bibliography now being assembled bearing on the subject of acorns. Mr. Ness says that, 'Because of the ease with which the hybridization of the live oak can be effected, the high fertility of its hybrids and other virtues already mentioned, to which, very likely, will be added improvement of the timber, there can be no doubt but that the breeding of new forms of oaks as here indicated has great economic and aesthetic possibilities.'"
Amen, Helge, Amen.
You might remember that Helge noticed something when live oaks were planted on the campus of Texas A & M (an area in which there were no other live oaks at that time): The female flowers reach maturity a few years before the male flowers (insert your own joke here) and yet the live oaks started bearing acorns before the male flowers reached maturity... so where the heck was the pollen coming from?
The answer, of course, was oaks of other "species," something Helge proved when he sowed those acorns and grew trees with a wide range of traits from pure live oak to pure overcup or pure post oak - and all combinations in between. He then also realized that many of those hybrids grew extremely fast and produced acorns at a very early age.
In short, Helge saved the world. Which I think should be the title of my book... so don't copy it.
Helge also probably ran afoul of the definition of species - at least as it has been applied to oaks. We generally define a species as, "A species is often defined as a group of organisms capable of interbreeding and producing fertile offspring." By definition if two groups of organisms (live oak & post oak, live oak & overcup oak, etc) can interbreed and produce fertile offspring they are not, in fact, two separate species. The are, at most, two different varieties of the same species.
Oaks. One species. Thousands of varieties. And the ability to feed the world.