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Coast Live Oak acorns

When I was growing up in Southern California, some of my favorite hiking trails were through the oak groves of Ojai. As we would hike through the shade, my grandfather would teach me about the plants and the animals in the ecosystem around us. I remember collecting the acorns that had fallen and wondering why an oak tree wasn’t called an acorn tree. Not only do these amazingly gnarled old oak trees provide shade for hiking trails, but these trees have an ancient past and are incredibly valuable. Oak trees play an important role in the environment, human history and economics. In California these amazing oaks have a history that goes back to the Ice Age, tens of thousands of years ago! Pieces of these trees have been preserved in the Ice Age La Brea tar pits, where these oak trees were ancient food sources and shade for animals like the saber-toothed cats and giant ground sloths. Many years later, people migrated to the Americas and began to use these oak trees even more intentionally. Oaks, specifically acorns, were an important part of Chumash cultural festivities and trade. They would eat meals from crushed acorns, but the Chumash were not the only people to discover the value of oak trees.

If we leave California and travel around the world we can see how oaks have been used by people

Valley Oak Leaves

across time and cultures. In many civilizations oaks represented strength, endurance, healing, and the sacred. In Greek mythology oak trees were sacred to the god Zeus and priests would interpret the sayings of Zeus through listening to the rustling of the oak’s leaves. Baltic, Celtic, and Norse people associated the oak tree with the gods and goddesses of their own mythologies. The durability and hardness of oak wood makes it perfect for construction and other practical uses. In the 9th century Vikings made their longships and ravaged Europe because of the strength of these amazing trees. Many different countries and cultures use the wood for storing drinks, making musical instruments, tanning for leather, timber and medicine. But it’s not just the wood and the bark that is used; acorns are used for food, coffee substitutes, art, and seedlings for future oaks. In World War II and the Civil War the Germans and the Confederates used acorns as a coffee substitute. These Ice Age plants are an incredible keystone species in the environment, and continue to inspire and define human history, advancement and culture. That’s a pretty tough job for an incredibly enduring species (even if I always have to think twice about acorns coming from oak trees and not acorn trees).

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