Two Pines

Front of the house, with two spruce trees; summer 1988

Growing up, the looming, ever-presence of the two large spruce trees in the front yard was a bit of a constant.  You could look out the front windows, and the two trees were simply there.   You did not give any thought of those two trees not existing. They were just there; on summer evenings, the trees shaded the living and piano rooms; in winter, the orange glow of the shallow-angled sun would flood the living and pianos rooms just under the lowest branches.

In the early 1990s, my father knew a fellow with an increment borer; a bore was made into the tree in the right of the above picture.  It was determined, after counting the ring segments from the bore core, that it was likely the tree had been around since 1927 or 1928  – just a few years after the original structure of the house was built (1924).

Alex, age 5, posing in front of north spruce tree

After the addition to the backside of the house was added in the early 1990s, the room just was above the front door became my bedroom.  During winter, while fretting over something – likely school related – at night, I would stand, looking out the windows into the trees.  On those cold, crisp winter nights, those nights without a cloud in the sky, a sky speckled with stars, I would watch thru the trees the stream rise from stacks of the municipal power plant in Hibbing.

Many Halloweens passed with kids walking beneath the hulking trees, toward the front door…only to be disappointed by not receiving any an answer at the door (my mother hated Halloween); on to the next house, those children would pass under the trees, again.

Countless birds and squirrels likely made use of the trees over the years.  You knew spring was under way when there were squirrels spiraling around, up and down the trees.

There were also several winters in the early 1990s where the trees were temporary shelters for large owls.  The suspicion was that heavy snow and cold weather in Ontario had made finding food difficult and had forced the owls south in search.  They found food in the neighborhood; there were not many squirrels around those winters.

These memories are all within my lifetime.  They are within my history; these trees predated me by over fifty-five years, they predated my parents by at least twenty years, my grandmother Clarice (now deceased) would have been about five years old when these trees came to be.  I tried to reach out to previous occupants or relatives of occupants and that was met with silence.   I also inquired with the Hibbing Historical Society for any old assessors’ photos of the front of the house – no luck there either.

In early August of this year, however, the trees came down.  They had been looking skeletal for a while.  Like a slow burning fire – from bottom to top – the needles dropped and left bare branches.  Large piles of needles formed on the ground.  Branches began to die.  By early July, my parents had arrived upon the decision to have the trees removed.  My mother fretted.

Like many blue spruce trees in Minnesota, the trees had a fungus. Rhizosphaera needle cast was the likely culprit.  The disease is generally not fatal to the tree, but in this case it was doing heavy damage to the trees. So, the trees came down.

There is a bit more to the story, though.  We lined up a sawyer with a portable mill to take the trunk pieces and turn them into lumber.  Nine-hundred board feet of lumber.



Three Trees

Walnut Tree in the WoodsWalking through the forest that covers a bit of familial-owned land, one might come across an orange flag here or an orange flag there — stuck in the ground.  Peeking thru  the low growing ground cover, one might find a single swamp white oak, perhaps a small grouping of them.  Wander over to another orange flag, and one might find a one to two foot tree with alternate and pinnately compound leaves.  Pinch a leaf between your fingers, and you might smell a very distinct odor, I equate the smell to soap.  This tree is a black walnut tree.  One of my favorite species of tree.  Here, on the familial-land, only three of the walnuts that were planted succeeded at making it through anthracnose in the late summer, early fall and then thru their first winter out-of-doors, and at a location that is technically much farther north than the northern edge of the black walnuts’ natural range.  These appear to be rather hardy trees.

In the fall of 2013, while traveling around and through southern Minnesota, Iowa and Missouri, I collected oak and walnut seeds.  There are many types of oak – bur oak, white oak, swamp white oak, pin oak, red oak, and others that are found in the upper midwest.  ce9c237a6e047cadc92679732e7e912e2b420dd1524e08f3061d95ae2a95bdf7_midThere is, however, just one species of walnut, the black walnut – Junglans nigra, found in the midwest.  I actually wrote about this collection effort from that time and a subsequent followup.  I kept records of where I collected seeds, when I collected seeds, the amount of time the seeds stratified, and how many seeds initially sprouted.

The walnut seeds and the various oak seeds, post stratification and vetting for viability, were plunked into seed starting pots in the garage and placed under a grow light.

Early in summer, the trees were moved from the garage to a space in the yard.  By the September 2014, much of the bright green foliage had blackened and fallen to the ground.  I had even contacted the University of Minnesota’s Extension Service about what might be causing the leaves to blacken and drop off.  Later, I determined, that it was most likely anthracnose.

It was unnerving to see those small trees that you had grown from seed turn black and die, but, I really was not interested in trees that would have to limped along.  I wanted trees that could hold their own.  Even though, when we brought a half dozen or so of the original 30 walnut seedlings to the familial-land, the seedlings looked simply like vertical sticks in pots of dirt, many of the stems showed small signs that leaves might form the next season.

_DSC8495With that, last fall faded into winter, and with winter, the seedlings were buried under snow.  On occasion, while visiting the familial-land during the winter, I would think of the walnuts under the snow.  Mostly, however, I stuck to snowshoeing the frozen river that forms of the southern edge of the land.  The trees could wait until spring.

When spring arrived, it was clear that at least half of the walnut seedlings did not make it through the winter.  The stems had withered and dried up.  Two showed strong signs of leaf development, and the third was a coin toss.

It was not until late May or early June that it was apparent that we had three surviving walnut trees.  Three of thirty walnuts – a 10% survival rate of the seeds that germinated, a little over a 6% rate of all the seeds that were gathered. walnut_trees There was an interesting property of the seedlings that made it through to this season: they were all from the same tree; one of our black walnut trees here in St. Paul.  None of the Iowa seeds or Missouri seeds, or even the seeds from southern Minnesota survived.  Those seeds grew quickly but seemed to have been hit quite hard by anthracnose.

We did not collect any seeds in St. Paul, last year.  We concentrated on collecting from the trees Hibbing, but, sadly, none of the three dozen seemingly viable seeds sprouted after stratification this spring.  In incredibly coincidental happenings, I spoke with my parents this evening and they informed me that a large grocery bag of walnut drupes was left hanging on their back fence.  It looks like seed collecting has started early this year.

Let’s hope those seedings that made it through last winter will have more seedlings to join them next year.

Common NameScientific NameLocationObtainedPlantedQntStrat DaysMarker
Black WalnutJunglans nigraRacine, MN11/3/20133/20/201410137JNRA013
Black WalnutJunglans nigraBlue Earth, MN11/3/20133/22/20149139JNBE013
White OakQuercus albaHastings, MN10/13/20133/22/201418160QAHA013
Swamp White OakQuercus bicolorWinona, MN11/28/20133/22/201436114QBWI013
Red OakQuercus rubraSt. Paul, MN10/25/20133/22/20141148QRSP013
Black WalnutJunglans nigraSt. Paul, MN10/1/20133/22/201410172JNSP013
Black WalnutJunglans nigraIowa City, IA10/5/20133/31/20149177JNIC013
Black WalnutJunglans nigraEureka, MO10/6/20133/31/20149176JNEU013
Bur OakQuercus macrocarpaRochester, MN9/17/20134/1/201423196QMRO013
Honey LocustGleditsia triacanthosEureka, MO10/6/20135/29/20148190GTEU013

Update: 8/16/2015

We made a day trip up to Hibbing and ventured out onto the familial-land while we were there.  Turns out, the title of this post should have been Four Trees, because we found one more surviving walnut tree tucked away in tall brush.

Sugaring Season

_DSC7147A mile or so from us, in the suburb of Maplewood, there is a yard with half dozen or so maple trees. Each spring, early in spring, you’ll find buckets with tubes or blue plastic bags hanging from those trees.  It’s sugaring season.  It’s that time of the year where tree sap flows relatively freely.  Capture enough of the watery sap, boil it down — a lot — and you will end up with maple syrup.

Larger operations will skip the buckets and bags and go straight to stringing tubing from their tree, through the sugar bush to the sugar house.  These operations may also employ vacuum suction in the tubing to draw out even more sap.

_DSC7060Sadly, we are lacking in many areas for the production of maple syrup.  Our little acre-plus in St. Paul has many trees – mulberries, Siberian elms, hackberries, buckthorns, pines, cedars, cottonwoods, pears, apples – crab & regular, cherries, plums and black walnuts – but not a single maple tree of any variety.  No silver maples, no red maples, not even a boxelder tree, but more importantly, no sugar maples.  We also are lacking in having a dedicated sugar house; we have an old garage at the back of our property, but the lack of maple trees kind preempts the need to turn that into a sugar house.

I have written, before, about our black walnut trees, and I often try to think of interesting uses or benefits for these great trees.  Last year, I stumbled across a blog post on tapping black walnut trees for their sap.  It was not spring when I came across the post, but the idea seemed very intriguing, very simple.  It is exactly like tapping sugar maples for their sap.

A few weeks ago, spring seemed like it was about to arrive.   News articles about the pending sugaring season started to come to my attention.  The walnut syrup posting came to mind.

A fleet supply store chain, here in the upper Midwest, had recently advertised the sale of beekeeping equipment; I wondered if they also carried sugaring supplies.  The nearest one of their stores is about 20 minutes away; it’s always fun to wander around the store.  A hop in the car, and wander around the store yield a roll of blue plastic sugaring bags and the metal hanging brackets.  Throw in a couple of taps and we were set.

_DSC7374This being a bit of an experiment, we decided to only tap one tree.  I picked the largest walnut we have that is outside of the dogs’ fence – we had visions of our coonhound running the yard with a blue plastic bag full of sap dangling from his clenched jaw; he has enough energy without sugar water.  Outside the fence seemed safer.

I punched two ½ inch holes into the tree; one higher and deeper than the other.  A few taps on the taps with a hammer and I hung the bags on the tree.

…and we waited.

The weather was great during this time; you want above freezing temperatures followed by below freezing.  That’s exactly what happened.  High 30s during the day, and high 20s at night.

_DSC7394The bag hanging from the higher, deeper tap began to accumulate liquid.  The bag on the lower, shallower tap did nothing – a few black flies ended up in the bag.

When there was a bit less than a gallon of sap in the bag, I decided to boil it down and see what I could produce.

The sap was strained through cheesecloth to remove any insects that had been unfortunate enough to get stuck there before the nightly temperature drop.  The clean liquid was then placed in an enameled cast iron pot and that was placed on the stove over medium-low heat.

We waited…periodically stirring the boiling liquid.

In the end, we ended up boiling down the near gallon to about a ½ cup of syrup.  Poured over hot waffled with a bit of butter – the syrup was delicious.  It was much more nuttier than maple syrup.


Walnut Seedlings – Revisited

I wrote in May (2014), of the crazy amount of walnut seeds that I had collected the previous fall and, then, subsequently stratified them in the refrigerator.  In that post I wrote in May, I mentioned how nicely the seeds were progressing with their growth and development into seedlings, nice looking and appearing to be strong.

Walnut Seedling (May 2014)

Sadly, now, at the beginning of September (2014), all of the walnut seedlings that grew from seeds that we stratified, have died.

This is a frustrating; I invested time, effort and a bit of money with the purchase of some clever root-pruning pots, but I decided that I should try learn what went wrong.  I suspected the growing medium – a natural, coconut hair-based substance that we tried this season for many of our seeds.  We started tomatoes & other long-run vegetables, morning glories, and various oak acorns in addition to the walnuts in the coconut-hair stuff.  My unscientific verdict on the grow medium is a mixed bag.  Walnuts, oaks and morning glories started out very well.  Tomatoes took a very long time to grow – even with artificial light and heat.  The tomatoes did not take off until summer warmed up slight – this was a month after we had put them into the real soil of the garden.  The oak seedlings, however, did well.  Most are still alive.

I decided to Ask an Expert.  So, I emailed the University of Minnesota’s Extension Service.

Walnut question.

Last year, I was traveling the midwest (via roads), and when I would stop, and if there was a walnut tree, I would collect some nuts. I cleaned the nuts, did a float test, and then stratified the sinkers in the refrigerator until spring. I kept a log of where each nut from from, when it was collected, and how long it was in the refrigerator.

I should also mention that I picked up various oak acorns on my travels, too. (this bit of info is pertinent a bit later)

I planted the nuts in a coconut-hair-based grow medium (this was this spring), and put them in trays and set them on a grow-heat-mat. By late spring, I had a lot of nice looking walnut seedlings. I transplanted these seedlings into RootMaker brand, one gallon containers, and set them outside. I used a regular, unfertilized garden-type soil from Menards for filling the remainder of the pots. The coconut-hair-based grow medium came along into the new soil.

During this transplant period, I also found about a half-dozen squirrel-assisted walnut seedlings in our yard and woods. I transplanted these into RootMaker pots, as well.

Fast forward now to the end of August, all of the collected/stratified walnut seedlings have died. There is not a one that has survived. The oak seedlings that I started – using the same grow medium and processes as the walnuts — have more or less survived. Several did die, but not in the percentages that the walnuts did. The other thing to mention is the squirrel-assisted seedlings that I transplanted – they have all survived, as well.

I will be traveling, again, this fall, and collecting seeds/nuts along the way (I was in Hibbing this past weekend, and collected walnuts from the one tree that I know of in that city). I do not think the issue was with the way of stratification or storage (seeds were stored in damp saw dust for the winter), but I suspect it was the grow medium and possibly a lack of natural pathogens in soil that the seeds were not exposed to during their emergence?

What should I try differently this fall and spring for the seeds that I collect?

What nutrients/soil-types should I use for a grow medium? Is using a heat-mat advisable?



I thought I hit all the points that needed to be covered and established a bit of a background on the processes and methods I employed.

Here’s the reply I received:

If some of your nuts grew and survived in the product that you used I wonder if that is the problem. I can’t help but wonder about the maturity of the nuts that you collected. It is possible that some were just not as fully mature when you collected them as the squirrel planted nuts. It is also possible that using a more “squirrel like” method of planting and growing may offer better results. Walnuts that are squirrel planted are frozen all winter, not just chilled. I wonder if you might consider trying a winter seeding approach. Plant your nuts in pots or a row in the garden in the fall and allow nature to provide the proper conditions. You might want to protect the pots or row with chicken wire so that the squirrels don’t eat your nuts. I don’t think a heat mat is necessary. I’m sorry that I can’t give you a more technical answer as to why your success was so limited but I would focus on collecting only fully mature nuts storing in the freezer and trying to reproduce a more natural process. Here is a good link to info about growing walnuts. Good luck!

-Sherry S. MN MG

And, that’s what a Master Gardener had to say about the problem.  I have read the article mentioned in the reply prior the gardener mentioning.  I do agree with the assessment of trying to grow the walnuts more closely to how they grow in nature; letting the nuts freeze, not using a heat mat during emergence, and planting the nuts in the ground outside.  I still suspect something with the grow medium.  It’s not completely valid to say that walnuts prefer richer soils than oaks, and that, that some how explains why the walnuts died and the oaks did not.  But, using methods that are more align to nature but adding that extra edge over nature without coddling too much – chicken wire or fencing to prevent predation of nuts that are planted in the ground, in RootMaker pots, seems to be the way I will go for this next grow season.

Black Walnuts

Growing up in Hibbing and specifically on the block I grew up on, I did not pay much attention to the large walnut tree that grew (it is still there) in Frank Pascuzzi’s backyard.  Every fall, the alley would be littered with husks from the tree’s seeds – green-husked, tennis-balled shaped-and-sized things; squirrels could be see carrying husk-less nuts in their mouths while run down the low-slung electrical wires above the alley.

My mother would yell at me, “don’t touch the husks, they’ll turn your hands black!”  I never really figured out what the big damn deal was with the husks; it is not like the husks were the walnut-equivalent of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’s Violet Beauregarde‘s three-course-meal-chewing-gum; I wasn’t going to turn into a black-and-green-husked walnut.  My hands would just be stained for a short while.

Even with the threat of stained hands, the walnuts made fantastic weapons.  Pegging your friend (or enemy) in the head with a thing that looked like a tennis ball but felt like a baseball was awesome.

juglnigr-rangeBut, there was one thing that I did not realize until late last fall.  That the walnut tree (and now, a likely offspring of that tree growing in a yard across the alley) should not be growing in Hibbing.  This is not some political should not or a moral should not, this is more of an oddity should not.  Black walnut trees (Juglans nigra) generally can be found as far north in Minnesota as the Twin Cities.  Even then, looking at the map, walnut trees are a southern Minnesota thing.  The walnut tree in Hibbing is effectively 200 miles too far north.

As the USDA lays out on their website, “Many . . .  environmental factors, in addition to hardiness zones, contribute to the success or failure of plants. Wind, soil type, soil moisture, humidity, pollution, snow, and winter sunshine can greatly affect the survival of plants. The way plants are placed in the landscape, how they are planted, and their size and health might also influence their survival.” It is very much possible to have isolated populations – like the small patch of them, indicated on the map, in South Dakota.

Microclimates abound as do odd strains of genetics.  A tree growing in Eureka, Missouri may be a Juglans nigra, but it might not be able to survive a winter in Hibbing.  Likewise, a black walnut from Hibbing might not be able to survive the summers of east-central Missouri.

Trees and particularly fruit trees, have piqued my interest for a while; a year or two before leaving Proctor, I had planted several cherry and apple trees at that house.  Our first spring here in Saint Paul, on our acre-of-earth, we planted cherry trees, apple trees, plum trees, and a hardy peach tree.  This was in addition to the existing pear and apple trees at our place.  Adding to that list of trees, we also have several large black walnut trees, mulberry trees, hackberry trees, and dozens of understory trees, like buckthorn, lilac, and ironwood, in the forest that covers the back of our property.

In addition to the penchant for trees, I have beeing tossing around a bit of an oddball idea: buy tax forfeited property and then plant trees on it.  Minnesota’s more heavily forested counties tend to have many pieces of land available for purchase (or here).  It is a bit of a goofy idea and there are bound to be hiccups with such an idea.  None of my friends that I have run the idea past, have seemed interested or enthusiastic.  You could grow fruit trees, but there is predation by those pesky ruminants that are spread throughout the state.  Though, that is often an issue with young trees no matter what they end up bearing.

Last fall, I was looking out at the back yard, looking at the walnut trees with their clusters of tennis-ball-sized-green-husked nuts, and it occurred to me that I could grow my own trees from seeds.  Mentally, I have connected my crazy buy-tax-forfeited-land with collecting-tree-seeds-to-be-planted.

There is a proverb floating out on the Internet, often attributed to being of Chinese origins, that says, “The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago.  The second best time is now.”  This could also just be metaphorical in the sense that you should do something soon rather than later.  So, with that in mind, I started to collect tree seeds.

Melissa called me a human-squirrel.  We would be in a park or at the highway rest area, and if there was a nut tree with seeds under it, I would start to gather up nuts.  I gathered walnut seeds in St. Paul, Blue Earth, Iowa City, Eureka, MO, and Racine, MN.  Unfortunately, I did not get up to Hibbing in time to gather walnut seeds there.  I branched out from walnuts and collected oak acorns, too.  Hastings, Winona, St. Paul, and Rochester, MN.  I collected bur oak, swamp white oak, white oak, and red oak seeds.

Generally, these seeds to be stratified in order for them to begin growing into trees.  Stratification is the process of chilling seeds for an extended period of time; in the real world, this is generally called winter, but for the seeds I gathered, this was the wine-chilling drawer in our refrigerator.  But before going into the shallow-freeze, I needed to get a better handle on whether the seeds were actually viable enough to be likely to grow.

That’s where the float test comes into play.  In the case of the walnuts, the husks needed to be removed first.  I let the seeds sit for a few days in a cool, dry place before attempting to remove the husks.  Removing the husks involved latex gloves and serrated knife.  Once the husks had been removed, you can try the float test.  Fill a jar or tall glass with water and just place a nut in the water.  If it floats, your nut is bad.  If it sinks, you have a slightly more viable candidate-nut.  Floating means there is air trapped inside the nut.  Air in a nut is an indication that there is likely a worm in the nut.

The nuts that passed the float-test (or failed to float in the float-test) were put into ziplock bags filled with damp sawdust and placed into the refrigerator.  The length of stratification varied from 137 days for the walnuts picked up in Racine, MN, to 196 days for the Quercus macrocarpa (bur oak) picked up in Rochester, MN.

We waited.  And, we waited.


With some of the seeds in the refrigerator for over six months, Melissa, at times, became annoyed that I had all these bags seeds and wet sawdust in there taking up space.  The bags of wet sawdust with seeds, each bag being marked with species and date of collection, stayed in the refrigerator until late March (2014), I started to catalog the seeds in a Google Doc’s spreadsheet, writing the encoded identifier on the plastic or wood markers, and then plant the seeds in small pots.  Eventually, little tiny trees began to poke through the soil. Black walnut seeds from Blue Earth, MN, were the first to nudge through to the surface.  Walnuts from Racine, MN were followed by St. Paul and Iowa City.  Eureka, MO, is the hold out; I think, though, that are one or two nuts from there are about to sprout.

Oaks, as it would seem, have a slightly different sprout-timing.  While the walnuts have been pushing up tiny trunks, an equally tiny tap-root has been pushing downward.  The oak acorns that are sprouting, are busy pushing down a tap root – their tiny trunks will be pushed skyward later.

Getting these seeds to grow seems to have relatively straightforward; next, will be getting these little trees through the summer and into the fall.  Then, I’ll start to collect nuts, again, as I travel here and there — hopefully collecting some from the trees in Hibbing.


Links of interest: