A young red oak
Family: Fagaceae, the Beech Family
Description: Native tall deciduous hardwood tree. Leaves with 6-10 lobes with bristle tips, bark furrowed and sometimes reddish in older trees, fruit an acorn
Habitat: Woodlands, field edges
Plant Parts Used: Acorns, bark
Food: Flour, nibble
Medicine: Astringent, antimicrobial wash
While acorns from white oaks (Quercus alba) are more desirable to eat due to their lower tannin content, red oak acorns can be used in the same manner and are more common in Maine. The tannins found in oaks produce the bitter, antimicrobial, astringent qualities often desirable for medicinal purposes, but not as food. The bitterness we taste in black tea comes from the presence of tannins. Fortunately, these tannins can be leached out of the acorn to create a delightful food. Terry-Anya simmers the acorn meat, found inside the hard shell, in multiple changes of water until the water no longer turns brown and a taste test suggests that most of the tannins are gone. She then chops and dries them in the oven, grinds them for flour, or salts them for a snack. When out in the woods where acorns are not present on the ground, John looks for acorns in granary trees where squirrels hide them. He leaches the bitter tannins in the acorns by placing them in a weir in a brook. He dries and grinds the acorn meat and uses the resultant powder as flour. I have eaten acorn flour in pancakes and breads; I find that it produces a richer, slightly sweeter bread. Native Americans from all over North America have used acorns as food for centuries, as have the people of Eastern Europe. The dried shells can be ground and used like coffee, which John thinks tastes similar to chicory coffee. Similarly, the Apache, Meskwaki, Menominee, and Kiowa would use acorns for making a coffee-like drink.
Ray uses a wash of the tannic acid—either leached from the acorns or bark—for poison ivy rashes because it effectively dries up the blisters. The Cherokee would chew on the astringent bark for treating mouth sores.
Caution: Tannins are toxic if consumed in high quantities (not to mention their displeasing taste), which is why it is important to process the acorns before consuming.
Note: This post is part of my Plants and People series. See my Plants and People page for more information about the project and the people referenced in this post.
- Brooks, John. Personal Interview. 28 Nov. 2010.
- Hayes, Terry-Anya. Personal interview. 27 Oct. 2010.
- Michener, Martin C. Botany Everywhere: Woods, Field, Home, and Garden Plants of NE USA, Third Edition. Hollis, NH: MIST Software Associates, Inc., 2009. PDF.
- Mittelhauser, Glen H., Linda L. Gregory, Sally C. Rooney, and Jill E. Weber. The Plants of Acadia National Park. Orono, Me.: University of Maine, 2010. Print.
- Moerman, Daniel. “Native American Ethnobotany: A Database of Foods, Drugs, Dyes and Fibers of Native American Peoples, Derived from Plants.” UM-Dearborn College of Arts, Sciences, and Letters. Web. 14 Dec. 2010. <http://herb.umd.umich.edu/>.
- Moerman, Daniel E. Native American Medicinal Plants: an Ethnobotanical Dictionary. Portland, Or.: Timber, 2009. Print.
- Reitze, Raymond and Nancy. Personal interview. 8, 15 Oct. 2010.
- Turner, Nancy J., and Patrick Von Aderkas. The North American Guide to Common Poisonous Plants and Mushrooms. Portland: Timber, 2009. Print.