10 years before the mast?
June 7, 2014 5:44 PM   Subscribe

Do trees respond to a harsh winter by producing a larger volume of seeds in the following spring?

After the harshest winter of my lifetime, I seem to be noticing a simply obscene abundance of tree seeding activity from a variety of trees in my neighborhood. The cottonwood is piling up into 5 inch drifts, the whirlygigs came down in gobbets (one even worked its way into a breast pocket) and the elms are just plastered with seeds. It is a staggering amount of biomass*. I have lived here with these same trees for almost 10 years, and I don't recall anything on this scale before.
Question 1: Is there any scholarly work, or even folkloric knowledge, that indicates a correlation between winter severity and mast seeding events?
Question 2: Are there any regional data collection efforts, accessible to the public, that monitor or track data along these lines?
*I am the sort of person that tracks the flowering time of trees on calendars, but still prone to observational bias, of course. It may not even be an above average year, productionwise, for all I know, but the allergy prone people around here seem to agree that this spring is a real kick in the sinuses.
posted by Cold Lurkey to Science & Nature (5 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Stress will make a tree seed more. We were in a pretty heavy drought most of the last two summers and the Maple trees in my yard all decided "Welp, not looking good for me, better SEED ALL THE THINGS". There were a LOT of maple seedlings to pull up in my garden the last couple of springs.
posted by sanka at 6:47 PM on June 7, 2014

The Masting Behavior of Trees

Masting in a tree is cyclic, in order to starve and overwhelm mast-eating creatures, and trees will synchronize with one another, focusing on growth one year and mast production another.
Three mechanisms are germane to any discussion of synchronization of activities among plants or animals: chemical, reproductive and environmental. ...

Try google scholar: mast synchronize

or, from "elm mast seed" : Arboricultural Journal: The International Journal of Urban Forestry -

Is there any scholarly work, or even folkloric knowledge, that indicates a correlation between winter severity and mast seeding events?

I'm sure farmers, agricultural researchers, ecologists, hunters, and so on have written huge amounts of stuff about it.

hunt deer mast cold year digs up articles like "Deer Hunting: Soft Mast Progress Report | Outdoor Life" and a while back I saw a discussion about catching fish in New Zealand. The fishermen eat fish that eat mice that eat beech nuts.
posted by sebastienbailard at 6:54 PM on June 7, 2014

This is also an issue for people with orchards of fruit and nut trees. Information about that stuff should be out there.
posted by sebastienbailard at 7:01 PM on June 7, 2014

Trees under stress will definitely expend more energy on procreation, as well as having normal annual variation. Often declining trees will have larger mast crops. There is a fair bit of research on it.

It makes sense, of course; last chance to spread the seed.
posted by Red Loop at 8:02 PM on June 7, 2014

I also heard a story on NPR that the cold spring delayed the seeding of some of the earlier species of trees, so there is sort of a stacking effect of all the trees busting out at the same time this year. Also it was a super wet winter and spring which means they have plenty of water to produce seeds. This story was back in like April and the expert predicted it would be a heavy allergy year, and sure enough it seems to be.
posted by misskaz at 7:54 AM on June 8, 2014

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