The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Call it an acornucopia: Oak trees in our area are producing tons of seeds this year

A squirrel chews on acorns in Portland, Maine, in September. There is an overabundance of the seeds this fall as part of what is known as a mast year.
A squirrel chews on acorns in Portland, Maine, in September. There is an overabundance of the seeds this fall as part of what is known as a mast year. (Robert F. Bukaty/AP)

UPDATE, 10/11: If you suspected there was something a little too precious about a unicycle-riding, barefoot-running hipster from Northeast Minneapolis chiding his neighbors for not sweeping their sidewalks of painful, errant acorns, you were right. Eric Curtis, who I wrote about in my column Thursday, confessed to Buzzfeed that he made it all up.

His posts on a neighborhood Facebook group went viral earlier this week after they were shared on Twitter.

“I started it for a laugh,” Eric wrote me in a Facebook message Thursday. “I didn’t think it would gain national coverage, but once it did I figured I had to take it as far as I could. In the end I hope people got some entertainment out of it.”

Alex Conover, the fellow Northeast Minneapolitan who shared Eric’s posts with the world, wrote to me in an email: “He’s a very skilled troll. Maybe even genius level.”

I like a conversation that begins with, “You’re witnessing one of nature’s weirdest phenomena that we still don’t fully understand.”

And that’s exactly what Scott Aker said the other day when I rang him up at the National Arboretum, where he is the head of horticulture and education.

Aker confirmed that I was not imagining things. There really are a lot more acorns raining down from above this fall.

“We’re seeing a lot of white oaks now producing a bumper crop of seeds,” he said. It’s called a mast year.

As for why . . .

“It’s called the predator satiation hypothesis,” said Michael Steele, a biology professor at Wilkes University in Pennsylvania. Lots of things like to eat acorns, including squirrels, which eat them from the outside, and weevils, which eat them from the inside.

Every few years, trees such as oaks produce an overabundance of acorns, so many that the predators can’t possibly eat them all. Squirrels and jays carry them away from under the parent trees and bury them, but many acorns are never found again. And that’s where baby oaks come from.

Elizabeth Crone, who teaches ecology and statistics at Tufts University in Massachusetts, said masting “is synchronized over the scale of hundreds of kilometers but it is not countrywide.” Northern New England — Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont — had an oak mast last year, but it is experiencing a paucity of acorns this year.

Heavy acorn production takes a lot out of a tree, so most can’t do it every year. Scientists aren’t sure how they know to do it the same year. It’s probably related to spring weather, Crone said. A wet spring or a late spring frost curtails pollination for that year, setting the table for a mast the following year.

Aker said a fun project is to put an acorn and some moist potting soil in a clear plastic bag in the refrigerator. After its ersatz winter, the acorn will push out an impressive root.

Clearing your garden of tenacious acorns can be a chore. There’s another chore at the arboretum. “Acorns are sort of like ball bearings or marbles,” Aker said. “If they get on walkways, we try to be very conscientious about clearing them. We don’t want anybody to break a leg. I would caution your readers to pay attention to that. Try to get them off walkways as early as they can. It may be a daily chore.”

Acorns play their role in the Circle of Life. Steele monitors small mammals at six sites on Hawk Mountain in eastern Pennsylvania. He’s found that a heavy acorn crop leads to an increase in mice. That’s followed by an explosion of the things that eat mice, such as weasels and foxes.

Prepare for the weasel invasion!

Oh, nuts

Elsewhere in the world of acorns, a resident of the hipster enclave of Northeast Minneapolis recently pleaded on a private neighborhood Facebook group for everyone to sweep their sidewalks:

“Lately I’ve noticed that the sidewalks have been LITTERED with acorns,” wrote Eric Curtis. “As a competitive barefoot runner, this makes my training sessions very difficult. I’m not sure if many of you have stepped on acorns with no shoes before, but it is quite painful!”

He continued: “I would hate to have to complain to the City about this, so just wanted to give everyone a heads up! Peace and Love!”

You can imagine some of the responses:

“If only there were something you could put on your feet to protect against acorns and other debris.”

“Maybe a pair of squirrels could be strapped to your feet. . .?”

“Run with a leaf blower.”

Some people thought Curtis was joking, satirizing Northeast Minneapolis, especially when they found an earlier post from him seeking hardcore unicycle racers to train with. Didn’t it all seem a little too Northeast Minneapolis?

Alex Conover, the 30-year-old photographer and designer who sent the story viral after posting images on Twitter, thinks it’s real.

“I believe there would be someone out there who would write this, because the Internet is the worst place,” Conover said.

I spoke with Curtis, who insisted to me that he wasn’t trolling.

“I wish I was a comedian,” he said. “I’m just a dork who likes running. If people want to make fun of me, that’s fine. . . . It’s clear to me that there’s a lot of discrimination against the barefoot running community.”

But couldn’t he just put shoes on?

“Then it’s not barefoot running,” Curtis said, adding that his “healer” (“I don’t really trust doctors”) counseled going shoeless to ease various medical issues.

Curtis said he works in the hospitality industry but hopes to one day “make enough in my barefoot running and unicycling to be professional so I don’t have to do that job.”

Wait, there’s money in barefoot running? “I hope so,” he said. “I’m told you can get sponsorships. Obviously, not a shoe deal.”

Well, from little acorns do mighty oaks grow.

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit