How to Dry Acorns, Sticks and Pine Cones for Play
Written by Noreen Greimann
When the cool breezes of autumn begin to blow and the leaves show the first specks of yellow and orange, my children and I turn into gatherers. Not because we have to like our friends the squirrels but because we love it and just can’t help ourselves.
Acorns, pine cones, chestnuts, leaves…you name it.
While I use some of them in my nature classes and with my children for crafts, many of these fall treasures find their new home in our play area.
Acorns are hauled in train wagons.
Chestnuts line the path to the castle.
Sticks become stick people.
Pine cones turn into mini trees.
Walnuts are used for meatballs in the play kitchen.
The uses for imaginary play are truly endless, which is why my children love them so much and look forward to a new batch each fall.
And while I love having a house filled with nature, I’m not too fond of little critters crawling around my house. I’m guessing you aren’t either. So to make sure you and your little one can enjoy these fall treasures without any surprise visitors popping up, I’m going to share with you how to safely bring them indoors.
How to prepare acorns, chestnuts and hickory nuts
Have you ever seen an acorn or hickory nut with a perfectly round hole on the side?
And did you automatically think of bugs?
Well, you were correct. These holes are indeed made by so called ‘nut weevils’. The female adult weevils lay eggs inside the nuts in the summer. When the larva hatches out of the eggs, they begin to feed on the nut. Once the nuts drop from the trees in the fall, the larva carves the hole you may have seen and burrows into the soil. It’s a one-way journey. So when you encounter a nut with a hole, it is safe to bring it inside without taking any further steps.
For all other nuts that look perfect on the outside, I recommend taking these steps.
- Set your oven to 175 – 200℉ (80 – 90℃).
- Spread your nuts on a baking sheet. If they are very muddy, you can rinse them in some water or brush them off. You don’t want to introduce more moisture if you don’t have to.
- Bake the nuts for about 1 hour. Allow to cool and discard any cracked nuts.
- Store in an open container for a couple of weeks to ensure complete drying. The nuts we use for play are kept in baskets and wooden boxes. And nuts that we safe for crafts are stored in lidded jars because they are stored in our basement and we don’t want the mice to have a feast.
If you have green acorns, they will take much longer to dry. While baking will take care of the little critters, it will not completely dry them out. Keep them exposed to air and they will slowly dry and turn brown.
How to dry pine cones
As lovely as pine cones are, they can pose a double threat…bugs AND sap. As with the nuts, the bugs can easily be killed off by baking the pine cones. The sap on the other hand can either be a non-issue as some pine cones simply don’t have sticky sap on them, or they can be so sticky that you will likely leave them where you found them. For the ones that are lovely and only a little bit sticky, baking them will solve the problem.
- Set your oven to 250℉ (120℃).
- Line your baking sheet with aluminum foil or parchment paper and spread the pine cones in a single layer.
- Bake for 1 hour. If the pine cones still have sap, bake them for a another 30 minutes. Allow to cool.
How to collect and dry sticks, twigs and branches
My children are drawn to sticks like moths to a light. Yours, too?
Most of our sticks stay outside in the yard but there are always some of the smaller ones that my children want to bring inside to use in their play setup. Sometimes, we also use thick branches from our maple, oak or sycamore trees that we cut into chunks. They are wonderful for building and imaginative play.
To make the sticks safe for indoor play, we bake them in the oven on its lowest setting (175 – 200℉ or 80 – 90℃) just like we do with the acorns and other nuts.
Branches that are freshly cut are inspect for any sign of insects and then we use them without baking them. Insects start to move once the branches lay on the ground for a while. Those branches can sometimes have beautiful marks under their bark from wood-eating insects. Peel back the bark and take a look next time you find one.
Can I freeze nature materials to kill off bugs?
The simple answer is NO. Freezing nuts, pine cones and sticks might kill off some insects but many will simply go dormant. If freezing would take care of them, we wouldn’t have any insects left after cold winters. Use the baking method and you won’t have anything to worry about.
Are leaves safe to bring inside?
Yes! Leaves don’t generally have any bugs on them. And if they do, they are easy to spot. Have fun collecting autumn leaves and enjoying their vibrant colors in your home.
Does your child collect treasures from nature that I didn’t mention? If so, and you’re wondering how to safely bring them indoors, put your question in the comments and I will get back to you.