October 17, 1857. Glossy-brown white-oak acorns strew the ground thickly, many of them sprouted. How soon they have sprouted! I find some quite edible. But they, too, like wild apples require an outdoor appetite. I do not admit to their palatableness when I try them in the house. Is not the outdoor appetite the one to be prayed for? —Henry David Thoreau
I once remarked to a massage therapist that anyone who wants to heal a body should know how to plant a tree. She was the director of a massage college and took me to heart. At her invitation, I began teaching an “alternative therapies” course that culminated in a native plant garden and outdoor classroom that included many wild, edible plants.
Each time the course is offered, I require the students to research, design, and plant new additions. The massage students make an eager audience; they tend to be health conscious and concerned with environmental issues. The setting lends itself to the topic as well. The outdoor classroom is on an urban north Omaha lot that once was the site for a house. The former lawn is well stocked with accidental yet edible greens like lamb’s quarter, violet, sorrel, dandelion, and varieties of mint. A relict woodland hangs on nearby.
The students have developed a native plant palette that reflects the upland oak-hickory ecosystem that once occupied the neighborhood. In their wild garden there always seems to be something ripe to eat—redbud blossoms, plums, hazels, hackberries, service-berries, black currants, and nanny-berries for the students to sample and many more species to feed insects and birds. But each autumn students are surprised when I pluck, peel, and eat a fruit that has been a staple in many cultures through time and across the planet. “You can eat acorns?”
Bur oak acorns were a staple food of the previous occupants of that land, the Omaha-Ponca tribe. They named this tree tashka-hi. As luck would have it, the tashka oaks we planted began to bear acorns at an unusually young age. They are fat and sweet. All oaks are either classified as reds or whites; those in the red group are often too bitter to eat without a lot of processing. But the whites (including tashka) can sometimes be eaten right from the branch, and burs are among the tastiest. My students, already predisposed toward organic food and dreams of one day living off the land, happily eat the perfectly ripened acorns as I show them how to gather and clean them. Our acorns are sweeter than most.
Historically humans have eaten acorns as a rich source of fat and protein. However, even at their best, most acorns tend to be somewhat bland if not bitter. They have been eliminated from most modern diets in favor of other sources, including other nuts that are a bit more exciting and flavorful. Acorns are an acquired taste, and for me, that’s the reason to eat them. Acorns are the food of adventure to be found by chance in the woods or savanna, or on a neighborhood tree that still bears the imprint of wildness. Our massage-college oaks carry a native pedigree, as they were grown from wild tashka acorns collected a short distance away.
The enjoyment of acorns requires a special appetite and occasion. My friends and I collect acorns to germinate and grow, and we often discover a tasty lot when biting into them to test viability. When they are sweet, it comes as a surprise. We have created woodsy cuisines around such occasions and have found that hackberries, reminiscent of licorice, add interest to the snack. They also pair nicely with chocolate and dried fruit from your daypack.
When acorns are ripe, the involucre (cap) is loose and often comes off easily. But sometimes the cap covers much of the nut and must be pried off or cracked to be removed. That leaves you with the shell-covered nut and a challenge. The shell is hard and thin and must be cut or cracked before it can be peeled away. I sometimes crack the shell between my molars, but the use of a knife is preferable to a trip to the dentist. Once this is accomplished, you will have a cream-colored nut that is slightly moist and sticky. It halves easily with fingers, which proves useful for evaluating potency. If you find grubs (larvae of the Curculio weevil) or areas of discoloration in several acorns, you might as well collect from another tree. Partly eaten or discolored acorns are impotent and distasteful to humans.
However, many acorn-eating creatures relish acorns containing grubs, as these would have the added benefit of insect protein and flavor. Some squirrel species have been shown to prefer grub-laden acorns, eating them on the spot and burying the undamaged ones for later forage. They can bury more than they can eat, and many grubby acorns get left behind. When the grubs emerge to pupate in the ground, they feed songbirds, mice, shrews and a host of soil-living predators. Those that survive emerge as adult Curculio weevils (a beetle with a long snout) and provide food for spring foragers.
A great many creatures eat and cache acorns and thus enhance oak distribution. Since grubby acorns are immediately eaten, the most viable acorns get buried. Some are forgotten and sprout. Even those that are devoured are vital to oak ecosystems because energy stored in acorns flows through food webs and is ingested and released many times over. That’s why it is important not to remove large numbers of acorns from any ecosystem, even if you decide to sell acorn muffins at your farmers’ market. Take only what you need for planting and for a walking repast.
I’ve tried a few acorn recipes and have found them unremarkable. I’m sure a better cook, with sufficient motivation, could make them delicious. But on this point I agree with Henry David Thoreau, the patron saint of acorn eaters. He opens Wild Fruits with this declaration: “The bitter-sweet of a white-oak acorn which you nibble in a bleak November walk over the tawny earth is more to me than a slice of imported pine-apple.” For me, they have proven to be the most satisfying on a walk in the woods or in a gathering of friends and students who, for whatever reason, want to discover new natural intimacies. It doesn’t matter why you might eat an acorn. It matters more what you’re doing when you decide to eat it.
Edible Native Trees and Shrubs of the Omaha-Ponca Region
The people of the European race in coming to the New World have not really sought to make friends of the native population, or to make adequate use of the plants or of the animals indigenous to this continent, but rather to exterminate everything found here and to supplant it with the plants and animals to which they were accustomed at home. —Melvin Randolph Gilmore
Meriwether Lewis and William Clark harvested many fruits, nuts, and berries on their voyage up the Missouri River in 1804. Many of these were familiar to them, as the eastern deciduous forests of home follow the Missouri River deep into the Great Plains. Around a hundred years later ethnobotanist Melvin Randolph Gilmore documented the native plants used by Omaha-Ponca tribe in Uses of Plants by the Indians of the Missouri River Region (1919). Many of these trees and shrubs can be found growing wild today.
When asked during a field exercise to identify edible native plants, one of my bright students replied: “They’re all edible.” Every plant is destined to be eaten, either as living tissue or food for decomposers. Native plants that are tasty and nutritious for humans give an extra blessing. My colleagues and I help schools and other organizations plant native gardens and outdoor classrooms. Native trees and shrubs teach valuable historical and ecological lessons while providing beautiful settings for learning and sometimes a snack.
These are some of our favorite trees of the Omaha-Ponca region of the middle Missouri River Valley. Botanical names are followed by Omaha-Ponca names, as rendered by Gilmore: Service-berry (Amelanchier arborea/zho-hoda), shagbark hickory (Carya ovate/nosi-hi), downy hawthorn (Crataegus mollis/taspa), hackberry (Celtis occidentalis/gube), black walnut (Juglans nigra/tdage-hi), crab apple (Malus ioensis/she-hi), wild plum (Prunus americana/kade-hi), choke-cherry (Prunus virginiana/nopa-zhinga), and bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa/tashka-hi).
We also like to plant Kentucky coffee-tree (Gleditsia dioica/natita), but care must be taken to prevent students from eating the seeds as they are poisonous unless roasted. The seeds were roasted by pioneers as a coffee substitute, but I much prefer the real thing. Seeds were roasted and eaten by the Omaha-Ponca, and the pods are lined with a sweet, gooey paste that was also enjoyed. It is green and mucus-like and provides endless amusement for grade-school boys.
Red-cedar (Juniperus virginiana/maazi) had medicinal uses for Omaha-Ponca. The berries were boiled to make cough medicine, but they have a pleasant spicy flavor when eaten fresh. The berries of other Juniperus species are used to flavor gin, and songbirds sometimes become drunk from eating the winter-fermented berries.
Pawpaw (Asimina triloba), redbud (Cercis canadensis), red mulberry (Morus rubra), and black cherry (Prunus serotina) are not mentioned by Gilmore. Each of these has edible fruit or flowers and was most likely eaten as well.
A great variety of woodland and prairie shrubs are deliciously fruitful. The Lewis and Clark expedition enjoyed puddings, salads, and baked goods made from native fruits and berries and recorded these in journal entries. Gilmore’s account includes a larger catalog, and many of these make excellent introductions into native landscapes: hazel (Corylus americana/zhing-hi), smooth sumac (Rhus glabra/mibdi-hi), black currant (Ribes americanum/pezi-nuga), goose-berry (Ribes missouriense/pezi), black raspberry (Rubus occidentalis/agthamugi), prairie wild rose (Rosa arkansana/wazhide), and nanny-berry (Viburnum lentago/nashama).
We sometimes plant a few specimens of blackhaw (Viburnum prunifolium) alongside nanny-berry. The two are similar in appearance and are closely related. Blackhaw is native to the southern Missouri River Valley, and the fruit is tastier than nannyberry, which can be bitter. Gilmore’s text confuses the two species.
The trees and shrubs listed above provide the greatest aesthetic, educational, and ecological benefit when planted together in natural communities. Every effort should be made to avoid cultivars (plants selected and cloned for commercial patenting and branding) and to acquire specimens grown from wild seed collected as close as possible to your planting site. It is well worth your time to find native plant nurseries in your area.