The Truth about Sawtooth Oak
Mention sawtooth oak in a group of hunters and chances are you will hear its praises sung. Discussions and stories of fast growth and acorn production will surely ensue. These discussions will be followed by embellished tales and/or lies (Remember, this is a group of hunters) of past hunts that took place over a dropping sawtooth. The general consensus is, if you are going to plant a tree or trees for hunting that the sawtooth is the silver bullet. These trees produce acorns at around 7 years of age from seed, grow quickly, and produce an abundance of acorns annually. What’s not to like? Take note, the sawtooth is just one arrow in the quiver of Southern whitetail habitat managers. It is imperative to understand the true value of sawtooth and how to effectively use them in wildlife plantings.
For hunting purposes, “when”, sawtooth are dropping acorns, they can be an absolute deer magnet. On the family farm, countless deer have consumed their final acorn under a dropping sawtooth oak. For 13 of the past 14 opening days of bow season a friend, family member, or myself have been fortunate enough to take a doe feeding under a particular grove of sawtooth on “The Place”. The lone unsuccessful opening day on that stand included two misses from the same hunter; it happens. This grove contains a number of trees that consistently shed their acorns later than normal and this is the only reason this stand has produced in consecutive years over a long time period. If it were not for the late droppers we would have experienced a number of years when the acorns would have dropped and been eaten before bow season ever arrived.
Sawtooth drop times can vary widely from year to year. Normally, acorns will begin to hit the ground in early September. In these “average” years there is a narrow window to arrow a deer before the last of the acorns are gone. Some years the crop will begin to mature and fall in early to mid-August. When this occurs the acorns are non-existent by the time October rolls around. When winter is harsh and accompanied by a late spring, acorns will not begin to drop until late September. Most years it is difficult or near impossible for the average hunter to take advantage of the sawtooth mast crop. For hunting purposes this alone is enough reason to diversify tree plantings.
Whitetails have a unique ability to seek out and utilize the most nutritious and palatable food sources available to them at any given time. In late acorn dropping years on properties that have native oaks, deer will all but abandon sawtooth acorns in favor of natives once they begin to fall. The acorns of sawtooth oaks have a high concentration of tannins. Tannin is a naturally occurring substance found in the bark or nuts of some plant species. Tannins are bitter and while deer will readily munch on available acorns they much prefer acorns with lower concentrations of tannins. Generally, members of the White Oak family contain lower levels of tannins than acorns from members of the Red Oak family. So, why do deer flock to sawtooth acorns? Because they are available not because they taste good.
From late summer, when the native browse is no longer putting on lush new growth, until the water oaks begin to drop acorns in early fall is the most stressful period of the year for southern deer herds. By the time sawtooth acorns fall deer have been stressed by pregnancy, birth, nursing, growing antlers, insects, diminishing food quality and quantity over the summer, and some years drought conditions. Deer flock to dropping sawtooth because they are the very first hard mast to fall each season and are generally one of the more nutritious food sources available at the time that they fall. The timing of availability of sawtooth mast helps to reduce or bridge a nutrition gap during a high stress period.
Sawtooth oak are native to Asia. When planting trees for wildlife and habitat improvement native trees and diversity are key elements to promoting an overall healthy herd and forest ecosystem. Sawtooth is a relatively short lived tree and carries a poor timber value. The fact that sawtooth acorns are attractive to deer and an important food source is intrinsic to when they are available, relative to other quality food sources. To that end, sawtooth oak is an important food source and habitat tool with some hunting benefits, nothing more. Diversify your tree plantings and plant sawtooth with the intention to help bridge the late summer nutrition gap for your deer herd.