Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Lori. Lori Wonders, “Why do acorns have hats?” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Lori!
As we walk, our ears tune in to the unique sounds of nature. We hear the calls of birds and the buzz of the few insects that remain. We love the rustle of leaves under our boots. Occasionally, we also hear the crunch of a nut as we step on it.
If you look closely at the forest floor, you can find all sorts of interesting things. Fallen leaves cover the ground like a carpet. Underneath, you'll discover grasses, weeds, flowers, branches, fungi, worms, and maybe even some of those cute little nuts that look like they're wearing fashionable hats. What are we talking about? Acorns, of course!
If you find acorns on the ground, you can be sure there are oak trees nearby. Why? Acorns, like other types of nuts, are actually seeds. In the case of acorns, they're the seeds of the mighty oak tree. Oak trees can be found all over the world. There are nearly 60 different species in the United States alone.
The embryonic root and stem of a future oak tree can be found in the lower part of an acorn. They're wrapped in a hard shell that's filled with proteins, fats, and carbohydrates that can nurture a seedling until it has grown leaves that can then make food via photosynthesis.
The top of the acorn that resembles a hat or a cap is called the cupule. It's a tough outer shell that can be either prickly and rough or scaly and smooth. Its purpose is to provide an extra layer of protection for the delicate embryo enclosed by the kernel, which itself consists of two fatty leaves called cotyledons.
Despite all of these layers of protection, only about one of every 10,000 acorns successfully sprouts into a new oak tree. What happens to the rest? They usually become food for one of the more than 100 species of animals and birds that love to eat acorns.
When you think of an animal eating an acorn, a squirrel probably comes instantly to mind. Acorns make up an important part of the diet of many other creatures, though, including: deer, mice, woodpeckers, blue jays, bears, chipmunks, and ducks. With all of these animals munching on acorns, the only ones that turn into oak trees are often the ones that get buried and forgotten!
Acorns are a good source of protein, fats, and carbohydrates, as well as vitamins A and C. However, modern human beings don't eat them very often. That hasn't always been the case, though. Acorns have played an important role in the cuisines of Korea and North America's indigenous peoples.
Why don't humans eat acorns more often? You might already know the answer if you've ever bitten into an acorn. Raw acorns have a harsh, bitter taste because they contain a chemical called tannin.
The tannins in acorns give them their bitter taste and can cause an upset stomach in humans who eat too many raw acorns. While tannins don't seem to bother most animals that enjoy acorns, humans must take additional steps if they want to eat acorns.
People who like acorns usually soak them in water to rinse out the tannins before grinding the acorns into a fine meal with a sweet, mild taste. The meal can then be used to make a variety of foods, including breads, cakes, and even a nut spread similar to peanut butter.