Did Hard Freeze Impact Acorns?

Freezing temperatures in mid March aren't good for budding and blooming vegetation.

John Trussell | April 3, 2022

When picking a deer stand to hunt this fall, you may be concerned about whether acorns will be falling to the ground due to a recent hard freeze that occurred across much of Georgia. On the weekend of March 12-13, 2022, the temperature got down to the mid to low 20s across much of Georgia, with even some snow falling in the north Georgia mountains. According to forestry experts across the state, any freeze damage to acorn-producing oaks seems to be concentrated in middle Georgia.

Oak trees can often withstand low temperatures in the spring for brief periods of time. But extended periods of freezing temperatures, especially teamed up with high winds, can “freeze dry” vegetation and kill new spring growth. That weekend saw steady winds in the 20-mph range, which tends to make cold temperatures worse on plants and trees.

I quickly noticed that many mature red oak trees on my land in central Houston County were severely damaged by the low temperatures, and the new bright spring growth that was visible the first week of March was turned totally brown and dead. Within a few days that dead vegetation started to fall off, and as of today, March 31, the trees still look brown and dead. Georgia foresters Chris Howell in Macon and Jason McMullen in central Georgia also confirmed this red oak tree damage in the woods of central Georgia.

Jeff Fields, Chief of Reforestation with the Georgia Forestry Commission, says that red oaks that suffered hard freeze damage will have fewer to no acorns, but not this coming fall, instead in the fall of 2023. Red oaks are on a two-year acorn production cycle. The red oak acorns that will come down this fall were set last year and can usually withstand cold temperatures, so we may have a normal red oak acorn crop this fall with the main negative impact felt next year. This information was also confirmed by David Clabo, Assistant Professor of Silviculture Outreach at the Warnell School of Forestry at the University of Georgia. David said the cold temperatures might put more stress on oak trees having to repeat the reproductive cycle twice in one year, which may reduce overall acorn production, but healthy trees will recover over time.

However, white oaks are on a one-year production cycle, so they will produce and drop acorns in the same year. Most white oaks that I have observed in the woods in central Georgia are showing less damage than the red oaks, as they normally begin to leaf out two weeks later than red oaks.

A good acorn crop is important for wildlife, especially in the mountains. These Rabun County red oak acorns were blown to the ground before they matured by a tropical storm in 2019.

In north Georgia, State Forester Jeff Cobb in Gainesville says that freeze damage to north Georgia acorn trees seems to be low, as most trees were still in the dormant phrase during the freeze weekend and had not yet started to leaf out for spring, which is good news for north Georgia hunters. In south Georgia, Mark McClure, Georgia State Forester in Albany, says that most acorn trees in that region and down to the Florida state line are water, willow, laurel and live oaks that tend to withstand cold temperatures pretty well. He has not seen any damage to them but says that his green lawn was turned to a January dead brown during that weekend, so he would not be surprised if some oak trees got burned by the freeze.

Chasing Mast For Better Deer Hunting

You might be asking yourself, “How often do oak trees produce acorns?” It’s common for the acorn crop on oak trees to vary from year to year. Most oak species produce a good crop of acorns once every two to three years. However, the white oak tends to produce a good acorn crop once every four to six years, but this acorn crop variation is spread out among many trees and is not universal across wide landscapes. Some trees will produce good acorns more frequently than others, and the reasons are difficult to determine. It’s part of nature’s plan, says Bubba Paulk, owner of Paulk Landscapes in Cochran. Trees that are spaced out with little sunlight and nutrient competition from other trees or are near good ground moisture sources tend to produce more acorns more consistently.

Bubba is a retired Agriculture teacher from Bleckley County High School and has extensive horticultural knowledge. He has noticed widespread freeze damage in central Georgia, especially among red oaks and sawtooth trees. Sawtooths are also on a two-year acorn producing cycle, thus any acorn reduction will be next year. Bubba expects fewer acorns in central Georgia this fall and in 2023, but as a side positive note, he says that deer probably won’t be able to fill their stomachs under one tree and might has to move around more to find acorns, making them more visible to hunters. Hunters must also hope for good rains during the summer to ensure a good fall acorn crop, says Bubba. A summer drought can cause an oak tree to go into survival mode and prematurely drop acorns, resulting in a partial to full loss of nuts.

Hickory trees are another mast-producing tree that will be impacted by the freeze. Some hickories were totally killed back by the freeze in central Georgia, especially at the tops, while others seem to only show minimal damage. Hickories are on a three-year nut production cycle. In year one they set flowers and nuts that mature and drop in year two. Year three is a recovery year with few to no nuts produced. Hickory nuts are an important food for small game, especially squirrels, wild hogs and bears. I have seen hogs and bears eat hickory nuts, and it was a very noisy process. It is amazing that they can crack open hickory nuts and digest these very rough and woody hulls. Deer rarely eat hickory nuts.

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