Soon nuts will cover the ground under many autumn trees. Squirrels will scurry about for weeks, getting food for the cold days ahead. How can we use local horse-chestnuts, acornsblack walnutsbeech nuts, and hickory nuts, for science learning?

Just what is a nut? Scientists define a nut as a kind of fruit with a hard wall around the seed that does not split open when the seed is ripe. The exact part of the plant that becomes the hard shell is part of what separates a true nut from other kinds of fruit. Most people call any seed with a hard shell a nut.

The seed inside a nut can become a new plant. A tree is successful if it can produce one new tree which survives long enough to reproduce. And yet, each fall, nut trees produce hundreds of seeds. They lie crowded underneath the tree which grew them. Do you think it will be easy for all these seeds to grow close to each other and close to the parent tree? What does a plant need to make it grow well?

Squirrels run around, picking up many of these seeds and putting them away for winter food. Most of these nuts will be eaten, but not all. A few will lie forgotten and ready to grow. Some of these nuts may have been carried far from the tree. Will this help the tree? Does the food gathering of squirrels actually help the tree be successful in reproducing?

Here are some activities you could do to explore some of the science of nut production this year:

How many different kinds of nuts can you find in the playground or in the neighborhood?

Count the number of nuts, nutshells, acorn caps, husks, etc. from one tree to try to find out how many nuts it makes this year.

Count the number of squirrels active near a nut tree.

How far do they go to store food? How often? How many meters, kilometers, feet or miles do they travel carrying food in a day?

What kinds of squirrels are collecting the nuts, red or gray? Do both species store their winter food the same way? What happens if another animal finds their winter food supply? Are they likely to lose all of it? 

Are there insects or other animals (besides squirrels) that eat nuts?

When do the seeds sprout, right away or in the spring? (This depends on the kind of tree.)

If you have a White Oak tree nearby, you will find that the acorns sprout soon after they reach the ground. Collect some of the acorns and grow them in pots of soil in the classroom. Figure out the percentage that sprout, chart their growth, figure out the percentage which survive, etc. 

Find out about old-fashioned children's games such as conkers which used horse-chestnuts. 

Do nut trees have fruit every year? Are there good years and bad years? Are all nut trees the same in this?

Some nuts can be eaten by people, others (like the horse-chestnut) are poisonous to people. Find out what kinds of trees have edible nuts in your area.
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