Garden Variety: 7 uses for the overlooked acorn

Ask a forester what tree to plant for strength, pest resistance and versatility, and the answer will almost always be an oak. Yes, they produce acorns, but in the spirit of making lemonade from lemons, plant the oak anyway.

When the acorns arrive in autumn seasons to come, try these overlooked uses to make the nuts a little less of a nuisance.

1. Plant them.

On average, about 35 percent of acorns are viable, so plant about three times as many as you think you might want. Sow acorns directly in the soil or in containers for ease of transplanting later. Acorns should be planted 2 to 3 inches deep with either end up as the root, and shoot will emerge from the same point.

Acorns from species in the red oak group (pin, northern red, shumard, sawtooth, shingle, etc.) require stratification to germinate. Leave them outside over the winter or hold them in cold storage prior to planting.


2. Eat them.

Acorns should be cooked or processed before eating to remove bitter tannins. Native Americans, many of whom relied on acorns as a major staple of their diet, dried the nuts and ground them into flour before flushing them repeatedly with water. You can do the same, or simply boil and repeatedly rinse shelled nuts. Processed acorns can be used in soups or dishes in the same manner as other nuts. Acorn flour can be used for bread, cakes, etc.

3. Dye fabric with them.

Like many seeds and fruits, the natural dyes in acorns can also be used to dye fabric. Acorns typically produce shades of brown and gray.

4. Feed squirrels, deer and other wildlife.

Squirrels will more than likely come to you if you have an oak tree anyway, so leaving the nuts in place is the easiest option. Sometimes wildlife will even provide a little entertainment.

5. Use them to acidify the soil.

Since high alkaline soils are common in Kansas and most plants prefer slightly acidic soils, a little decrease in soil pH could certainly be a good thing.

This is a decades-long process influenced by soil type, moisture availability and oak species, so be patient knowing that your acorns are making the soil a little better for the future. (If you already have an oak and are thinking the acorns have already done their work, have your soil tested. Tree roots and shade are more likely culprits for thinning lawns.)

6. Compost them.

Scoop up the nuts and run them through a chipper shredder if you can. Or wait until the squirrels are done and compost the shells. Fair warning: composting whole nuts and using the compost too quickly could result in unwanted plantings.

7. Crafts

Even sweetgum balls get made into wreaths and incorporated into fall decorations. Acorns seem like a great candidate for a hot glue gun and a little imagination.

There are about 20 oak species native to the Midwest and an increasing palette of adapted and hybrid species available. An acornless oak named Champion or Champion Seedless may be available in the future. A private arboretum in Illinois has begun propagation of the former national champion Deam’s oak (Quercus x deamii), which has remained seedless through about 40 years of observation.

— Jennifer Smith is a former horticulture extension agent for K-State Research and Extension and horticulturist for Lawrence Parks and Recreation. She is the host of “The Garden Show” and has been a gardener since childhood. Send your gardening questions and feedback to Lawrence


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