Sawtooth Oak Tree vs Chestnut Tree For Wildlife
Many landowners and wildlife managers recognize the important role perennial food plot trees play in attracting and holding deer to your land. When it comes to selecting the right trees to plant, there are several good ones to choose from. Two of the top-producing food plot trees, the Dunstan chestnut and the sawtooth oak tree, provide nutritional deer-attracting mast crop for many years after they are planted.
Both have many advantages, but one, according to Ian Wallace, co-owner of Chestnut Hill Outdoors, a nursery and tree farm in Alachua, Florida, has some clear advantages over the other. But first, let’s talk about the history and benefits of each species.
History of the Sawtooth Oak Tree and Dunstan Chestnut
“The sawtooth oak, which is a non-native species that was introduced in the 1800s, has been one of the most widely planted trees for mast sources for food plots for a long time. In fact, even back to the 1980s, they selected sawtooth because of how quickly and how much it produced,” Wallace said.
The sawtooth oak was introduced in the 1820s from East Asia and is native to China, Korea, Japan and the Himalayas. It’s a fast-growing, very adaptable tree and can thrive in a variety of habitats.
The American chestnut once thrived across the U.S., producing heavy crops of highly palatable nuts from year to year. Unfortunately, in the early 1900s, a blight devastated chestnut forests and by 1950, almost all chestnut trees in the country were wiped out. Still, one blight-resistant tree was discovered and, from that tree, the chestnuts were brought back from the brink of extinction.
Named the Dunstan Chestnut, after a man that helped bring it back, this new chestnut is blight-resistant and highly attractive to wildlife.
Sawtooth Oak and Dunstan Chestnut Production
Wallace said that trees typically begin producing sawtooth acorns at between six to eight years in comparison to some native oaks that can take 15 to 25 before producing their first acorns. Sawtooth reach maturity around 15 to 20 years.
Dunstan chestnuts typically begin producing fruit between three to five years and reach maturity at around 15 years.
“As far as production per year, a single sawtooth oak tree will end up producing more than a chestnut would to some degree. But it all depends on time of year, the rainfall and weather conditions, and there can be an ebb and flow of how much a single tree produces during any given year,” Wallace said.
According to Wallace a sawtooth can produce up to 1000 pounds of acorns in a year and a chestnut can produce between 200 to 500 pounds in a year.
There are many variables to consider when it comes to the chestnut versus the sawtooth oak for deer.
“The Dunston chestnut, which is a hybrid American Chinese chestnut, probably has a lifespan of 100 to 200 years. It’s hard to tell because we hybridized this chestnut in the mid-1900s, so we haven’t really had any die off because of age yet. So, we’re still watching to see when that starts to happen. A sawtooth oak will typically begin to deteriorate when it reaches around 100 years old, or maybe a bit older, whereas our native oaks, depending on the variety, live to be anywhere between 200 to 400 years old,” Wallace said.
Native vs Non-Native
“The fact that the sawtooth originally came from Asia means there are some drawbacks. Since it produces so much and many acorns, and more frequently than our native oaks, there’s a concern of it being potentially invasive. You have to look at the impact, region by region. If you start to see a bunch of seedlings popping up around a site that you’ve planted sawtooth in several years prior, that could be a sign that it’s becoming invasive. If there’s no seedlings at all, then well, obviously, it’s not very invasive,” Wallace said.
Wallace explained that a sawtooth oak tree can also perform poorly in certain regions. For example, tropical storms and winds in the South can break sawtooth oaks because of how quickly they grow.
“In their natural habitat, they branch out long and quickly without any weather conditions that would push them down. But since we have frequent tropical winds in the South, they can get broken more frequently, whereas in some other states, that wouldn’t be the case,” he said.
Wallace noted that the chestnut is a native tree to the United States so it’s hardy in a variety of conditions found throughout the eastern section of the country and extremely attractive to native wildlife.
“There were once millions of acres of chestnuts abundant across the whole eastern hardwood forest, just like oak trees are now. So native wildlife is searching for that nutrient and is used to that nutrient being there, but it just isn’t here as much anymore.”
Wallace said when you introduce a chestnut tree to a piece of property, it’s very natural for wildlife to find it and seek it out.
The Taste Test
When it comes to deer preference, Wallace said chestnuts will win out over acorns every time.
“The biggest thing that separates the palatability is that oaks have a lot more tannic acid or ‘tannins’, while chestnuts don’t. Acorns are eaten by wildlife and are meant to be a part of that food source and are an important part of it. They have really high fats and carbohydrates and some proteins that are good, but the tannins in the oak’s system are trying to keep the animals from eating too many acorns.”
He explained that tannic acid is the tree’s natural deterrent to keep predators from eating its seeds/nuts.
“Tannic acid is actually not the best for foraging animals’ gut. There’s some research that shows that a lot of tannins can disrupt the animal’s biome that’s breaking down all that material. It has biotics that are helping its gut break it down. Those tannins actually kind of kill off some of that biotic system in there. So, a lot of tannins aren’t very healthy for foraging animals.”
He explained that, yes, animals will come in and feed on acorns for a while, but then they’re going to move on to something else because their stomachs can’t take that much.
Chestnuts, on the other hand, are highly-palatable to deer, which have thousands more taste buds than humans and are sensitive to bitter-tasting tannins.
“In 2010 or 11, we did some tests with Dr. Deer, James Crowell, in Texas. He set up some acorns and chestnuts, and we watched the deer choose the chestnuts over the acorns every time.”
Chestnuts are chosen by deer over all other nuts because of their taste and nutrition. They are high in carbohydrates (40%) and contain up to 10% high-quality protein. This highly nutrient-rich food source provides critical energy during the rut in the fall. Chestnuts also have no bitter-tasting tannic acid.
“To sum it up, the chestnut is a superior tree to the sawtooth oak because of its consistent production and because it’s such a hardy tree. It’s also fast-growing and gets to the production age three to five years quicker than oaks. It’s just a better tree for a food plot, and will last for many, many years to come, if you take care of it,” Wallace concluded.
You can listen to the full interview with Ian Wallace of Chestnut Hill Outdoors below.