In this video, Darwin jumps around in springtime exuberance and eats leaves of a water oak (Quercus nigra). He was inspired to do this by seeing a French video in which a naturalist ran around in the French woodlands and ate young leaves. He smiled really big and talked about how good they were, including oaks, willows, poplars, beeches, etc.
But the French videographer warned his viewers that they should do this only with very young leaves. Older leaves in European forests are full of toxic compounds which, although they will not kill you, at least taste bad. The leaves manufacture these compounds (for example tannins) to discourage animals, especially caterpillars, from eating them.
But it can be expensive for a leaf to defend itself. Every molecule of defensive chemical that the leaf makes has a construction cost in energy and raw materials. These costs could be used to make more leaf area, which is an investment in photosynthesis that will bring in more energy and raw materials. The ideal amount of defense spending for a leaf (or a nation) is zero, but this is not possible in a dangerous world. Therefore, leaves, like nations, economize their defense spending. Leaves make defensive chemicals only when they are needed.
Ever since the work of Paul Feeney fifty years ago, scientists have understood that, in European forests, many herbivorous insects die during the cold winters. Their populations build back up during the warm, wet summers. The forest trees, such as the oaks studied by Feeney, economize their defense spending by producing very few defensive compounds in the spring, then more and more as the summer goes on. In the early spring, therefore, the forest is almost like a big salad bowl, especially for the Frenchman I mentioned earlier. In the video, Darwin decides to eat a young water oak leaf in Oklahoma.
Darwin got a surprise. The leaf was bitter. Then he understood why. In Oklahoma, the winters are not very cold (February 2021 being a significant exception) and many insects can find little crevices to hide in. In Oklahoma in the spring, unlike in Europe, the insects can come out in full force. The young leaves are ready for them, having defended themselves with chemicals. Many of the insects die during the long, hot, dry summers in Oklahoma; that is, their populations die back in the summer, not so much in the winter.
This raises the possibility that tannin concentrations in Oklahoma oaks are high in the spring and lower in the summer. Of course, once the leaf produces tannins, why not just keep them all summer? But it is possible that the tannins can be degraded and the molecules used for something else. I tried to measure this in post oaks (Q. stellata), only to discover that I am not a very good chemist and failed to measure the tannin levels correctly.
I did try a different, creative approach to determining whether the early season oak leaves were more toxic than the late season leaves. I ground up leaves in liquid nitrogen and mixed them up into hornworm chow. You read that correctly. Hornworm chow. It turns out you can buy hornworm eggsand caterpillars, and even chow and growth vials, from Carolina Biological Supply. Wild hornworms usually eat tomato leaves, but these caterpillars eat chow, and, apparently, almost anything you mix into it, like leaf powder. The hornworms grew best on the chow. But they grew bigger and faster when they ate late-season oak leaf powder than early-season powder.
So my advice to Darwin is, if you want to eat tree leaves in the spring, go to Europe.