The word “mast” has many meanings. Most often a nautical notion, the word mast is associated with sailboats (as in a mast is what holds a sail up to the wind). The word also means the aggregate food that grows on trees, for example, acorns and nuts eaten by wildlife from birds to squirrels to deer. Mast matures during the fall season.
Several mast bearing trees can be found in our area. White oaks can be found on upland hills. White oaks grow throughout the state of Tennessee. The range of white oak covers most of the eastern U.S., from Texas north to Minnesota, then east to Maine and south to Florida.
High quality white oak has been prized by Americans for generations. Among other uses, it once was made into barrel staves, bringing about the all but forgotten nickname barrel oak. Wildlife may love white oaks more than man does. Woodpeckers and turkeys are among the birds that enjoy the nuts. Raccoons and chipmunks enjoy the nutrient packed treat, too. Deer eat the nuts and browse on tender white oak twigs.
Black walnut is another important nut-bearing tree. The walnut’s compound leaves are finely toothed. This hardwood is coveted so much for furniture that individual trees are sometimes cut and stolen. Walnuts have provided edible fare for aboriginal Tennesseans a thousand years distant up to today. Historically, a black dye was made from their husks. Open up a walnut and you will be sure to get your hands and clothes black from the inner husk that surrounds the actual nut. It is a rite of passage for children to ruin clothes from opening black walnuts. Squirrels and other wildlife avidly consume walnuts.
Beechnuts are an important food for wildlife, from mice to deer, and birds from ducks to blue jays. Critters break apart the burr-covered shell to reach the nutrient rich treat. Beechnuts are about the size of your thumbnail. For man, the wood of beech trees is used for everything from flooring to railroad ties to charcoal. In addition, many people think of beech tree bark as a carving tablet.
Beech trees are among the easiest trees to identify in East Tennessee. First, the smooth gray trunk makes it stand out in the forest, as carved-upon trees testify. Many woodland walkers simply can’t resist the flat surface of the beech — it seems to attract woodland graffiti artists bearing a handy pocketknife. The smooth trunks contrast greatly with the knobby and fissured oaks and hickories that thrive in this region.
Pick up a beech leaf from the forest floor. The sunlight- absorbing leaves are generally 2-4 inches long. Note the sharply toothed edges of the leaves. They are a dark green on top and lighter underneath. In fall, they turn a yellowish golden brown. Under ideal conditions, beech trees can reach 120 feet in height. However, the average mature trees, like those you will see along the trail, reach 60-80 feet from the ground.
After the leaves fall from the beech, you will notice the buds of next year’s leaves. They are but a half-inch in length but resemble a mini-cigar. Come spring, these buds will unfurl to once again convert sunlight for the tree as it resumes growing during the warm season, to make mast again.