Oaks of Indiana

An oak is a beautiful, long-lived tree. They don’t erupt in floral fireworks in the spring, but their autumnal display is second to none. They’re planted in parks, back yards, and campuses for their generous shade, farmed for their highly valuable lumber, and climbed by adventurous children and young-at-heart alike. The oak belongs to the noble Fagaceae tree family, along with Beeches, Chestnuts, and Chinkapins. Roughly one year out of every three, an oak tree is capable of producing a huge crop of healthful and delicious nuts that sustained many civilizations throughout human history.

Did you make a confused face when I mentioned oak nuts? Yes, we are talking about acorns!

Acorn Uses

Oak Leaf with AcornsAcorns are not suitable for fresh snacking like pecans are, but after some simple processing (involving soaking the nuts in water to remove their bitter tannins) they can be ground into a versatile and gluten free flour that can be baked into cakes, cookies, breads, and more. They can also be made into porridges, soups, and beverages. Their culinary use is more similar to grains than the nuts that might more commonly come to mind, although their cultivation requires none of the ecologically destructive tillage practices and deleterious sprays that are commonly employed in grain farming. The extensive root system of the oak tree helps to protect soil from the forces of erosion, which in turn protects clean water. The many leaves of the oak tree filter the air of the carbon that we have too much of, and infuse the air in turn with plenty of the oxygen that we need more of. Since these trees grow all by themselves and produce plentiful acorns in the wild, we know they won’t be high maintenance as crops. This is Earth-positive agriculture at its finest.

Aside from a few fun experiments with acorns, I haven’t really cooked with them in quantity. But that’s all about to change. For me, 2020 is to be the year of the acorn. I bought a new nutcracker so I can process them in bulk, and gathered all the publications I could find on the subject. Over the past month, I’ve been searching for oak trees everywhere I go, and keeping a detailed log of the species, location, and approximate age of each tree that I find, and noting whether or not the tree is producing acorns this year. My hope is to collect a sampling of acorns from every native oak species to experience and compare all the available flavors, and to collect a large quantity of acorns from trees of the easier-to-process white oak group for recipe experimentation and general winter sustenance. I probably won’t realistically gather acorns from every single native oak species this year, but eventually, I aim to collect them all.

Oak Tree Groups

Oak Leaf VeinsAccording to Wikipedia, there are around 600 species of oak trees, encompassing a multi-continental native range and spanning multiple oceans. Here in Indiana, we have quite a few native species of oak trees from the white oak group and the red oak group. The white oak group produces the sweetest nuts that ripen about six months after the tree flowers, and these nuts require less processing (soaking in fewer changes of water), since they contain lower levels of bitter tannins. The red oak group produces nuts that are higher in tannins, and ripen about 18 months after the tree flowers. Because of the higher tannin content, acorns from red oak trees require more work to process the bitterness out of them (you soak them in extra changes of water). However, all acorns are edible as long as you process them until they are no longer bitter. We have planted one hundred Swamp White Oak trees in our wetland food forest in anticipation of their delicious acorns, and so far they are thriving more than any other tree species we have planted. We also inherited a beautiful mature Bur Oak tree that grows on a steep slope between our high and low fields, and that tree is loaded with acorns this year. Most trees in the White Oak Group have rounded lobes on their leaves, and most trees in the Red Oak Group have pointed lobes on their leaves. However, this is not a 100% hard and fast rule. If you have space for an oak tree on your land, be sure to select a species that is native to your area. Native trees are usually easier to grow and more beneficial to your local ecosystem. Although you might notice some bite marks on the leaves of your oak tree, or an occasional acorn with a hole in it, please don’t spray as these are not usually a serious problem for the tree, and are a sign that the tree is supporting the vibrant web of life in your community.

Indiana Native Trees of the White Oak Group

  • Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa). A splendid tree with a very nice form and especially nice acorns. It is a very adaptable tree whose native range includes all of Indiana, and also dips down as far south as Texas and reaches up as far north as Canada.
  • Chestnut Oak (Quercus montana). Native to upland regions of eastern and southeastern United States, including the southernmost parts of Indiana.
  • Chinkapin Oak (Quercus muehlenbergii). Native to all of Indiana and several neighboring states. Prefers upland soils.
  • Dwarf Chinkapin Oak (Quercus prinoides). Native to all of Indiana and several neighboring states. Prefers dry, acidic soils.
  • White Oak (Quercus alba). A huge oak tree native to all of Indiana, as well as most of the eastern United States.
  • Overcup Oak (Quercus lyrata). A great lowland oak tree native to several southeastern United States, including a very small area of southern Indiana.
  • Post Oak (Quercus stellata). Native to southern Indiana and most of the southeastern United States. A smaller oak tree that prefers dry soils.
  • Swamp Chestnut Oak (Quercus michauxii). Native to a small section of southern Indiana, and several Southern, Eastern, and Southeastern United States. Very similar to Chestnut Oak, but native to lowland regions instead.
  • Swamp White Oak (Quercus bicolor). Native to lowlands across all of Indiana, and a few neighboring states.

Indiana Native Trees of the Red Oak Group

  • Black Oak (Quercus velutina). Native to all of Indiana, and to a huge range encompassing much of eastern United States. Adaptable to multiple soil types.
  • Blackjack Oak (Quercus marilandica). Native to dry soils of southwestern Indiana, and several southeastern United States.
  • Cherrybark Oak (Quercus pagoda). Native to a tiny corner of southwestern Indiana, but mostly to southern states. Thrives in moist bottomland soils and tolerates occasional flooding.
  • Northern Pin Oak (Quercus ellipsoidalis). Native to uplands of northern Indiana, northern Illinois, and a few other northern states.
  • Pin Oak (Quercus palustris). Native to moist but well-drained soils across all of Indiana, and to our neighboring states to the west, south, and east.
  • Red Oak (Quercus rubra). Native to all of Indiana, and a huge range encompassing most of the eastern United States and parts of Canada. Adaptable to multiple soil types.
  • Scarlet Oak (Quercus coccinea). Native to splotches of southern, northern, and central Indiana and most of the northeastern United States. Grows best in well-drained, acidic, dry or sandy soils.
  • Shingle Oak (Quercus imbricaria). Native to most of Indiana, as well as our neighboring states to the west, east, and south. Adaptable to many soil types.
  • Shumard Oak (Quercus shumardii). Native to most of Indiana and to the south. Adaptable to multiple soil types.

Side Note

One notable “oak” we thankfully do not have in Indiana is “poison oak”! Poison Oak is not related to oak trees at all. Its in the same genus as (closely related to) poison ivy and poison sumac, and its plant family curiously also includes cashews, pistachios, and mangoes! Poison “oak” is named such only because the leaf shape vaguely resembles the shape of an oak leaf. The similarities end there.

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Sage Advice

I’m growing two varieties of garden sage (Salvia officinalis) in the herb spiral this year. One plant was simply labeled “Sage”, and the other was labeled “Berggarten Sage”. Early in the summer, it seemed like Berggarten Sage was extra productive, but regular Sage has totally caught up and now both are producing about the same amount. The Berggarten variety has a slightly milder flavor, and huge round leaves. The large size of the Berggarten leaves is an asset when making fried sage leaves, such as are used in one of my favorite lasagna recipes. In most other recipes, the sage leaves are chopped and/or dried, and there is only a slight flavor difference between the two varieties. Both varieties are labeled as hardy perennials in zones 5-9. I planted them in zone 6, so I hope to enjoy both of these plants for years to come!

Most people don’t think of sage when they go to brew a cup of tea, but sage makes a very nice herbal infusion. Brew as you would mint tea. À votre santé!

Pro tip: In past years, I’ve tried growing sage in the ground with no success. Sage enjoys dry climates and well drained soil. It does not thrive if the soil is soggy all spring long, such as is common here in central Indiana. If thriving sage plants have eluded you in the past, consider growing it in a raised bed, or near the top of an herb spiral. A little elevation has made all the difference for me!

Both plants were purchased from Companion Plants nursery in Ohio in May 2020.

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A Midsummer Day’s Feast

It is the beginning of August. The sun and the rain have been battling for dominion over our days, settling into a ferocious and unpredictable, yet nourishing and balanced cycle. Harvests are abundant in these conditions.

On a personal note, regular readers may remember that I lost my day job at the start of the COVID shutdown. Recently, on the seventh anniversary of this blog, I officially decided to make that a permanent change. It’s something I’ve been thinking about doing for years, and now feels like the best time to dive in. I’m working the land full time now, and I’ve never felt better. I find my life harmonizing with the weather patterns. Sunny days are for field work, gardening, sun tea, and hanging laundry. Rainy days are for preserving the harvest, making and mending what is needed, and for studying. I’m studying hard, and I’m learning a lot. Every day is magical, and I’m so grateful for the combination of luck, strategy, and hard work that brought me here. I know what a rare chance this is, and I won’t waste it.

As you might imagine, there’s a large pay gap between a software engineer’s salary and a beginning farmer’s salary, so anything I can produce rather than buy increases my odds of success in this venture. This is especially true of high quality fresh food, which pays me not only in grocery savings, but also in improved wellness. I harvest regularly from my gardens – four raised beds, an herb spiral, and some container plants. But I also supplement my garden’s offerings by foraging wild edible and medicinal plants from my fields and wooded areas.

A trio of foraged plants: lambsquarter, red clover, plantain
A Foraged Bounty: Lambsquarters, Red Clover Blossoms, Plantain Leaves

Right now, lambsquarters, red clover, and plantain are plentiful. Lambsquarters is a wild relative of spinach, and it tastes just as delicious as its famous cousin. Red clover and plantain have many uses for food and health. If you’re interested in learning more about how to use red clover and plantain, both are covered in Rosemary Gladstar’s excellent book “Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide“. My library has a copy, and maybe yours does too! As the farm evolves, my goal is not to remove weeds, but to continuously skew the weed populations towards useful species. I mow and cultivate selectively to discourage poison ivy, cocklebur, and hemlock while encouraging useful weeds to grow and multiply. I’ve even planted some seeds of native weeds I enjoy, in hopes they will take hold and spread through the untamed parts of the land.

Herbs gathered from the garden
Garden Herbs: Tulsi, Lemon Balm, Sage, Garlic Chives, Chives, Sweet Basil
Garden Veggie Harvest
Garden Veggies: Cucumbers, Tomatoes, Sunflowers, Green Beans

Tomatoes, cucumbers, and green beans are thriving in the garden. My sunflowers have had limited success. Most of the sunflower seeds didn’t grow- I suspect the seeds were devoured by hungry wildlings. And who could blame them? Sunflower seeds are delicious. Of the few sunflower plants that germinated, only one is yet in bloom.

Sun Harvest : Sun Tea Brewing
Solar Harvests: Sunshine brews the most beautiful herbal teas! And you can save a tiny bit of electricity by brewing them this way.

Much to my surprise, my greens garden is still producing, even in the summer heat! I expected the collard greens and kale to bolt once the weather warmed, but they are unfazed. The radishes did bolt. Other brassica family members have started to differentiate themselves from the nearly identical forms they all shared as young plants. Kohlrabies are growing bulbs, cabbages are forming heads, and Brussels sprouts are sending up their tall stalks. You may notice there are no pictures of harvests from that garden today, and there’s a reason for that : cabbage loopers. The little green worms have eaten more than their fair share of these plants, and so I paused my harvesting while the plants recover from that damage. BT is an effective organic pesticide for cabbage loopers that I do use when necessary, but I waited a little too long between my applications of it. These plants are very vigorous, and I’m confident the harvests will resume in a couple of weeks.

A Visual Feast : Beautiful Marigold Blossom
An Especially Nice Marigold Blossom
Not Yet A Harvest : Fig Tree Beginning To Flower
Not Yet A Harvest, but a baby fig!

If you enjoyed this totally ad-free, affiliate-link-free, sponsored-content-free, subscription-fee-free, 100% honest free article, please consider showing us some love! You can help us and our cause of Earth-positive agriculture by sharing this article with your friends, following us on social media, and interacting with our posts. If you’re feeling especially generous, you could also toss us a few coins through a free platform called Ko-Fi. It’s easy to use and processes through PayPal so you don’t have to create a new account.