Acorn pancakes, anyone?
How about first aid for your poison Ivy?
There is an unwritten rule that one does not cut an oak unless absolutely necessary.
People rarely look twice when trees such as poplars are felled, but when oak trees go down, there is always murmuring and head shaking at the loss of something great.
Why is it that oaks get so much more respect than almost any other tree?
The simple answer is that oaks grow very slowly and reproduce solely by means of their fruit, the acorn. The wood is very dense, meaning that an oak tree the same diameter as a poplar may be two or three times as old. Because oaks are so strong and have fire-resistant bark, they can live far longer than any human being. This alone makes the oak worthy of respect. But I have come to respect them for many more reasons. Over the years, oak trees have provided me with food, medicine, shelter and fire. Their acorns make a fine food that has long been used by humans as a well-balanced source of complex carbohydrates, protein and fat.
As kids, my brother, sister and I would scour the neighbourhood looking for acorns. My dad would pay us 10 cents for every coffee can-full we brought home – a sly way of getting rid of us for a while and keeping us out of trouble. In the winter, he’d fill bird feeders with our acorns and we’d all gather at the windows to be entertained by the crazy antics of the squirrels as they raided and defended the bounty.
Collecting acorns to feed ourselves, however, is another matter. Start by getting a pail ready. Then, as soon as you hear the acorns begin to drop onto your roof (anytime from August to October), grab your pail, run out the door and gather the little treasures before the deer, bears, squirrels, chipmunks and weevils get them all.
The sooner you collect them, the less damage will have been done to the nuts by acorn worms (the larvae of the acorn weevil). If you see a small, round hole in an acorn’s shell, it means the larva(e) have eaten their fill and made their exit. I leave these on the ground.
There are many ways to shell acorns, but I have so far found the easiest way is to roast them in an oven or next to a fire until the shells crack easily when hit or pressed with a hard object. My technique is to lay each roasted acorn on a flat surface, place a wooden spoon on top (concave side down) and then hit or press on the spoon with my hand. The spoon prevents the nuts from flying all over the place.
Once shelled, you can grind the nuts into flour. A food processor or blender works well for this. I usually put the nuts through the food processor first and then transfer the coarse flour to the blender to make a fine, smooth flour.
Warning: Do not put dried acorns into either appliance. They are very hard on the machines. They also make a horrendous noise, and it’s difficult to turn the machine off when your hands are over your ears.
I add acorn flour to muffins and pancakes in addition to the amount of ordinary flour specified in the recipe, since acorns contain no gluten. If a recipe calls for nuts, I often add acorn flour instead.
I initially tried substituting up to half of the wheat flour in muffin batter with acorn flour, but what came out of the oven was so dense and unattractive, I couldn’t even give it away.
Instructions for preparing acorn flour often include a step that involves removing the astringent tannic acid from the nuts, either by repeated boilings or cold-water leaching. Acorns gathered from the bur oak (Manitoba’s only oak) have a relatively low tannic acid content. There’s no need to leach it out, but it does have its own uses.
As an astringent, tannic acid works wonders on open, weepy wounds, poison ivy and other skin eruptions. You can extract it easily by boiling oak bark, acorn shells or the acorns themselves. If you pour this tannic acid “tea” over a wound repeatedly, you will see almost instant results.
I once used a strong tannic acid tea to help close a deep gash I had in my leg. In less than an hour, the effects were indisputable – the gash started to dry up and I could see the tissues pulling back together.
I also use tannic acid to soothe sore feet after walking barefoot through places where I should have known better.
After shelling my acorns, I always save at least a gallon of the shells for medicinal purposes. One thing I like to do is boil the shells to make wild kombucha tea. Kombucha is tea that’s been fermented by a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast (a “SCOBY,” as aficionados call it). The probiotic tea helps to promote healthy gut function by balancing the bacterial flora in the gut. The SCOBY requires the use of tea that is high in tannic acid (i.e., green, black or white tea), but I have found that the tea made by boiling acorn shells makes a fine substitute. I add wild mint, wild ginger, sweet cicely, roasted dandelion root, sassafras and other savoury wild herbs to make delicious and refreshing variations. (Editor’s note: for the complete scoop on SCOBYs and kombucha tea, see our feature on page 4.)
Oak trees produce copious amounts of thick, almost leathery, leaves. Many times, I have used these leaves to make water-proof shelters that have kept me warm even in winter. I also collect unwanted leaves from my neighbours to add as compost to my gardens. They take longer to break down than other types of leaves, but the process can be sped up by adding grass clippings to the mix. (It’s best to compost the leaves before adding them to the garden, otherwise they will rob the soil of nitrogen during the process of decomposition.)
The denseness of oak wood allows it to give off a long-lasting, even heat when burned. I am quick to salvage oak trees that have been downed by people who have broken the unwritten rule about oaks, often in the process of clearing fencelines or pasture. This prized firewood is used sparingly, when I need to keep my place warm for long periods without restoking the fire. Oak also makes a good hand hold for a bow drill because it will not burn as easily as the softer woods commonly used for the spindle and fire board.
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There is a humbling feeling that overcomes me when I am in the company of a large, old oak tree that has survived more years than anyone I know. As Hal Borland wrote, “If you would know strength and patience, welcome the company of trees.”
1 cup flour (I use whole wheat)
½ cup acorn flour (see preparation instructions in the article)
1 tbsp honey
2 tbsp baking powder
1/8 tsp salt
1 1/2 cup liquid (milk, soy milk, potato water, maple sap*, etc.)
2 tbsp oil
*If using maple sap, decrease honey by at least half.
Combine dry ingredients and mix well. Add liquid and oil and mix until batter is smooth. The acorn flour will absorb a lot of liquid, so allow the batter to sit for a few minutes and add more liquid, if necessary.
Ladle batter onto a hot, oiled griddle (275º F) or cast iron pan (medium heat). Flip when bubbles appear throughout the upper surface (about 2 minutes). Cook until underside is lightly browned (about 1 minute).
Botanist and founder of Prairie Shore Botanicals, Laura Reeves regularly shares her enthusiasm for wild edibles, wilderness skills, urban survival and disaster preparedness in courses, workshops and private consultations. She also sells sustainably wild-harvested herbs and is helping to restore 100 acres of tall grass prairie within the Manitoba Tall Grass Prairie Preserve. For more info, visit psbotanicals.com and Prairie Shore Botanicals’ page on Facebook.