While walking through Julian Price Park Campground this week, I was hit in the head by an acorn. It hit the ranger hat with a thud. Ladies and gentlemen, fall is here.
Two questions came in this week concerning two common sights on the Blue Ridge Parkway at this time of year: squirrels and goldenrod.
I have an oak tree in my yard and every September I can observe dozens of squirrels making work of the acorns. Sometimes they eat the acorns, but usually they take them away with them. What are the squirrels doing? Do they have some sort of nest nearby?
— Rita, Blowing Rock
I am truly impressed by your keen observations, Rita. Very few people take the time to notice squirrels. They think of them as pests or raiders of their bird feeders, but do not realize the important role they play in the web of life.
Squirrels are currently in the act of “scatter hoarding,” a process which is also known as caching. They dig shallow pits into the soil where they store individual acorns until there comes a time when food is less plentiful. Then, they search out their hidden goodies.
They store their food in many places so that if another squirrel or animal were to find a cache, the entire year’s supply would not be lost. Research has found that squirrels have an amazing talent when it comes to finding acorns that they themselves have buried (sometimes thousands of nuts).
While some of the nuts are found using their sense of smell, studies show that some squirrels are able to find up to 90 percent of the acorns just from memory. In order to do this, the squirrels make use of landmarks.
Think about this. Consider your favorite food. Mine would be chocolate. If I were to hide thousands of delicious, dark chocolate bars out in the forest one autumn, how many do you think I would be able to find in the spring? I think I might be able to find four or five.
Is it not amazing that a squirrel, with its tiny brain, is able to remember the locations of thousands of acorns?
However, not all acorns are found. In this way the squirrel is also a seed planter. The forgotten acorn, snug under the soil, will grow roots and sprout.
Why doesn’t the park just eliminate all the goldenrod? My allergies are horrible in September.
— Rex, Boone
I am sorry, Rex, but this is a case of mistaken identity.
Goldenrod flowers are not at fault for your suffering.
Goldenrods are one of the showier flowers of early autumn. Their dense stands of plants with bright yellow flowers attract the attention of many pollinators. Hence, they are pollinated by insects. Their pollen is not dispersed by the wind.
No, your culprit is ragweed with its inconspicuous green flowers that most people do not even notice.
Its pollen is light and small enough to be carried by the wind from plant to plant. It is also just the right size to reach your nose and make you sneeze.
You are not alone in your assumption, Rex. Since goldenrod is so visible and its bloom time coincides with ragweed’s, it is often the scapegoat of allergy sufferers along the parkway.
Of course, being that all native plants and animals are protected in the national park, there is no plan to eliminate all the ragweed.
If you have a question concerning flora and fauna, please email (firstname.lastname@example.org
All of your questions will be answered. Two will be featured next week.
See you on the trails.
Amy Renfranz is an interpretive park guide on the Blue Ridge Parkway. She is a certified naturalist through the Yellowstone Institute and a certified environmental educator in the state of North Carolina. Her comments are made independently and do not reflect the views of the National Park Service.