It’s a Mast Year


    Ever heard of a “mast year?” I hadn’t until we moved to our cottage on the Eastern Shore. That was June.  In early September, it started. Artillery fire. Lying in bed in our loft, with no attic to buffer us, it was like the London blitz—except with acorns. The white oak hanging over our roof let loose with a vengeance. Ba boom, ba boom,  all night long, all day long. When the wind picked up, the pings and pongs quadrupled. Acorns falling have a way of sounding like footsteps. A little scary until you figure out it’s vegetable, not animal. But we couldn’t get away from it. And if we went outside,  smacks on the head. Every morning we woke to littered decks. What we shoveled up was replaced by more the next day.

    The happiest creatures were our resident squirrels. I swear they invited all their long-lost relatives to the feast. We had squatters stuffing their little cheeks. Acorn meat flew out of their mouths as they chomped. They let as much fly in the air as they swallowed. Who could blame them? Even they could see they’d never run out. I half expected to see them lying among the acorn shells in dead bug position, their little bellies bursting, their heads lolling to the side in sated stupor.

    So I asked the Extension Service in Snow Hill—what’s going on ? That’s when I heard “mast year” for the first time, and the reasons for it are mysterious. One theory is the oak tree is reacting to intense predation. Intense predation?  Who else is living at this address?  Another thought is that mast years maximize pollination efficiency.  Save up a few years and then: mass fertilization.

    What should we expect next year? I’m told this doesn’t happen every year, but it likely will increase the number of animals that snack on acorns. That’s great. Well-fed equals more babies for the squirrels and the mice. Does that also mean a population explosion in the ticks that carry lyme disease? Stay tuned.

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    Elizabeth Licata

    Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

    Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


    1. We also had a mast year in mid-coast Maine – acorns, pine cones, horse chestnuts, black walnuts, Chinese chestnuts … lush production! One explanation I heard to explain this particular season: this is a result of what transpired the previous year. In Maine, that was drought, which stressed the plants and stimulated them to set excess flower buds. With this summer’s favorable weather, the trees were able to support maturation of all that mast.

    2. I know this comes as little comfort during long nights, but it’s probably better than hearing traffic and car horns and other city stuff all night long! Ear plugs might be a temporary solution.


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