By Lea Sloan, Vice President of Communications

When was the last time you really looked at an acorn? For me, before last fall, it had been a very long time. And when I did, I noticed that acorns really are tiny time capsules for what could become the biggest trees in a yard or park — and outlive me by several hundred years.

Every day on the way to work I walk by dozens of oak trees in D.C., from a myriad of varieties that I try to identify accurately. My job at American Forests is to inspire people to protect and restore forests, and to appreciate why forests are essential to our planet. So, somehow lightning struck and it occurred to me, why not try to grow some acorns into trees?

How? I Googled it.

I started collecting them from the ground under particularly big, healthy trees, looking for a variety of species. I found red oak, willow oak, bur oak — and what was either a scarlet or northern pin oak, judging from its leaves. I stuffed the acorns into my pockets.

I took notes on trees from which I collected the acorns, although now I wish they were more detailed (note to self: be a better scientist). Reading up on guidance from multiple sources, and getting advice and encouragement from friends and strangers including at the Eastern Native Tree Society, I launched into phase two. I floated my candidates in a bowl of water. The sinkers are the keepers. The floaters are no-go’s.

I divided the sinker acorns into separate baggies with labels, and added a little dampened sphagnum moss and vermiculite, and put them down for a long winter’s nap in the vegetable drawer in my refrigerator at home.

Phase three

Thinking early February was the time shift gears into spring, it seemed to be the right time to plant them. Two of the red oak acorns had already sprouted little white roots. I put half of them in little four inch square pots in a potting soil mix. The others I planted in my raised-bed garden at home with a chicken wire screen over the top to thwart squirrel thievery.

My timing was off. In two weeks, the red oaks that had sprouted roots had broken out the top of the acorns too and were three inches tall. Within days, a third had sprouted and the first two were six inches tall. Oak trees have tap roots that grow monstrously fast.

VP of Communications Lea Sloan grew oak seedlings from acorns she found near her D.C. home.
VP of Communications Lea Sloan grew oak seedlings from acorns she found near her D.C. home.

I needed bigger pots

I should note that the whole potting operation was taking place in my office. My big window gets tons of indirect light in February. In March, the setting sun comes up over the rooftops and is more direct — and the trees were ready for it. Two of the willow oaks had sprouted, and two of the scarlet or northern pins, as well.

The first five had to go into even bigger pots or go outside, but the winter refused to end this year in Washington — and the whole northeast, you may have noticed. And it was still too cold to acclimate them outside. They had to chill in their pots for a couple of weeks, in which they didn’t grow very much, which may have done incalculable damage to the tap root. This pained me, but so did the prospect of a big bill for bigger pots and costlier shipping. So I made them wait, and felt very badly about it. These trees are my babies.

So this last weekend, I finally brought them home. It was still too cold to leave them out all week, but over this weekend they got daytimes out, night times in. And last night, when it wasn’t going to go below 50 degrees, the first five had their first night out in the big world (on my screened porch) since their life on their real mothers, or at her feet as fallen acorns.

Next weekend I will plant them in the garden until they get up to adoptable age, in the fall I think, when I plan to take applications from neighbors and friends who seriously promise to water them a couple times a week through the warm and hot months of their first two years. That will get them off to a good, strong start in life. And shade our neighborhood for decades — or centuries to come.