Biological Sciences, Santa Barbara City College

Biology 100: Concepts of Biology

Quercus berberidifolia   
Scrub Oak

Quercus berberidifolia is the accepted species name of scrub oak in our area.  It is found at the margins of the coastal sage scrub plant community and in the hard chaparral in the elevation range of 100 – 1,800 meters.

Scrub oak forms about 15% of the cover of the chaparral and gives the chaparral its name.   The origin of the word “chaparral” is the Spanish word for scrub oak, chaparro.  There are numberous species of oaks in the genus Quercus that can be described as scrub oaks.  Scrub oak is one of the few instances in which a common name is both descriptive and accurate.  Depending on geographical location, a scrub oak could be one of a number of species or even a hybrid between two of these species making identification to species very difficult  

All the “scrub oak” species tend to be less than 4 meters in height and with multiple stems emerging at ground level.  Height, however, will vary with aspect and micro climate.  Quercus berberidifolia is especially polymorphic – there is a wide variety in distinguishing characteristics between different members of the same species.  The variations are so large that you question whether or not the individuals are really the same species. You will also find leaves and acorns of many different shapes and sizes on the same plant.  Q. berberidifolia may also hybridize with other species of Quercus which further complicates the identification process.

Quercus berberidifolia showing variety of forms. From Sudworth, 1908
Look at the variety of acorn sizes and shapes in this picture.  Also note the variety in the leaf size and leaf margins.  Is the leaf tip rounded?  Are there spines on the leaf edge?  How many spines are there?  Are they evenly spaced?  Is the leaf flat or wavy? How long is the leaf stem?

Quercus berberidifolia is not deciduous. New leaves appear in the spring and gradually replace the older leaves.  Older leaves fall to the ground and become part of the thick leaf litter.

Flowers are found between March and May.  The small, green female flowers are very inconspicuous and not easily seen as they are usually hidden by the leaves.  The brownish green catkins are the male flowers and are more obvious.  They are found dangling beneath the leaves at the ends of the branches.  The fruit of the oak is the acrorn. In the Santa Monica Mountains it was estimated that Scrub Oak yields 10 tons of acorns per year. Despite being bitter because of the tannins they contain, acorns are an important food source for many chaparral animals, birds and insects. 

The acorns were also an important food source for the Chumash and other native people.  They would gather the acorns, grind them into a pulp, leach them by pouring water over them (to remove the tannins and make the acorns less bitter) and then cook the acorn meal.  The mush would be gritty because many of the grinding holes are in sandstone. 

Kingdom  Plantae – Plants
Subkingdom  Tracheobionta – Vascular plants
Superdivision  Spermatophyta – Seed plants
Division  Magnoliophyta – Flowering plants
Class  Magnoliopsida – Dicotyledons
Subclass  Hamamelididae
Order  Fagales
Family  Fagaceae – Beech family
Genus  Quercus L. – oak
Species  Quercus berberidifolia Liebm. – scrub oak

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