Evergreen shrub 0.25–1.5 m tall, or a tree sometimes to 15 m tall when not browsed, with a trunk to 1 m dbh or more in old trees, bushy, rounded, or upright habit. Smooth grayish bark when young, later becoming slightly fissured, forming small scales as it ages. Twigs covered with yellowish starry down at first, later grayish and smooth. Buds 30–40 mm long, ovoid with rounded apex, reddish brown, glabrescent or completely glabrous. Leaves stiff and leathery, broadly oval, elliptical or oblong, 1–6 cm long, 0.7–3 cm wide, based rounded, heart-shaped or (rarely) tapered, apex a stiff, sharp spine, margins with 4–8 similar spines, sometimes entire, dark green above, slightly paler below, shining and glabrous on both sides, though sometimes pubescent beneath or with a few hairs in vein axils; young leaves thin and soft, often bronze or purple on both sides, sparsely to densely pubescent below, slightly more above; stalk 0.1–0.5 cm long, slightly downy at first, soon glabrous. Fruits ripening the second year, usually solitary on a short stalk 4–15 mm long; acorn 12–45 mm long, 8–25 mm wide, light brown, one-third to two-thirds enclosed in the cup. Cupule covered with light brown, spiny scales with slight grey or whitish pubescence. (le Hardÿ de Beaulieu & Lamant 2010; Zohary & Feinbrun-Dotan 2015).
Distribution Albania Algeria North Bosnia and Herzegovina Bulgaria Croatia Cyprus France Greece Israel Italy Jordan Lebanon Libya North Macedonia Morocco Portugal Serbia Spain Syria Tunisia Turkey European and W & S Anatolia
Habitat Rocky soils from sea level up to 1500 m asl. Relatively indifferent to soil type, except for those with poor drainage and high acidity. It is found on degraded soils and scrublands. It can survive with little precipitation during the growing season, but in its habitat receives between 700 and 1000 mm per year. Grows in association with Pinus halepensis, Juniperus oxycedrus, J. phoenicea, J. drupacea, Rhamnus alaternus, Pistacia lentsicus, P. terebinthus, Cistus albidus, C. monspeliensis, Ceratonia siliqua, Phillyrea angustifolia, P. media, Genista hispanica, Spartium junceum, Salvia rosmarinus, Daphne gnidium, Crataegus azarolus, Styrax officinalis, Quercus infectoria, Q. ithaburensis, Q. petraea subsp. iberica and Q. ilex, which it replaces after forest fires, thanks to its highly efficient root system.
USDA Hardiness Zone 7-8
Conservation status Least concern (LC)
Taxonomic note The name Q. coccifera has been interpreted in different ways. Traditionally Q. coccifera is applied to shrubby plants around the Mediterranean while Q. calliprinos or Q. coccifera subsp. calliprinos has been applied to arborescent forms of the eastern Mediterranean. Tree-like forms in southern Portugal were described as Q. coccifera subsp. rivasmartinezii, these also occur elsewhere in the Mediterranean. Another interpretation is to include all these in a variable Q. coccifera. Vázquez Pardo et al. (2018) took a different view. They recognized Q. coccifera and Q. calliprinos (described from Lebanon), stating that the latter is sporadically distributed in the Mediterranean region, particularly so in the western half.
Familiar to many as a scratchy small shrub in Mediterranean shrublands, Kermes Oak was cultivated in Britain as early as the 17th century, due to its role in the production of scarlet dye. Its shiny foliage, bushy habit, and prickly, holly-like leaves contributed to its ornamental value. Hillier recommends it as a splendid backcloth for a rock garden (Hillier & Lancaster 2014), presumably in reference to a very dwarf and compact plant that according to Bean (1976) grows at Jermyns House, Sir Harold Hillier Gardens, England. In the wild this species is found as a shrub but also as a small tree, especially in the eastern section of its range. If it can be saved from woodcutters and browsing animals, it can live for centuries and achieve significant size. It sometimes grows on sandstone or sandy formations, and tolerates poor soils. It withstands drought and grows back vigorously after being cut down or damaged by fire. It appreciates warmth and will not survive temperatures below –10 °C; however high-altitude provenances may be slightly hardier. On rocky soils it replaces Q. macrolepis, which is the dominant oak on better soils (le Hardÿ de Beaulieu & Lamant 2010).
As mentioned in the taxonomic note, much has been written and discussed about the stature and habit of Quercus coccifera and how to treat its different morphs, but it is clear from specimens in the wild as well as in cultivation that stature can be very variable, and that the familiar low-growing prickly shrub is only one end of the spectrum; further research is needed in this group. As an example, plants found between 1000 and 1500 m near Isparta, Turkey in 2002 by Allen Coombes had the leaves glaucous and hairy beneath. One was a shrub of 2–3 m while the other was a tree to 6 m. Both collections are grown at Sir Harold Hillier Gardens and the latter at Thenford, England. The Thenford plant had the leaves green and glabrous beneath in 2020 (D. Webster, pers. comm.).
Early editions of Bean regarded Q. calliprinos as a variety of Q. coccifera, following Boissier, Hooker, etc., but a publication by Otto Stapf in the Kew Bulletin in 1920 persuaded Bean to elevate Q. calliprinos to species status, in the form it was published in 1838 by Webb. The debate has continued over the decades, with some indicating it should sink into synonymy and be included in Q. coccifera without distinction, while for many it is the accepted name for the Kermes Oak in the eastern Mediterranean. The Israel Oak Registry (2020), for example, lists Q. calliprinos, but not Q. coccifera. Similarly, Michael Avishai (2017), Director of the Jerusalem Botanic Garden, reported on oaks growing in Mount Hermon region, using Q. calliprinos as the accepted name for Kermes Oak. Later editions of Bean, however, including the 1988 Supplement, preferred to consider it a subspecies (Clarke 1988).
Taxonomy aside, there seems to be general agreement that the eastern Mediterranean form of Kermes Oak is characterized by a larger habit, especially if it can grow unhindered by human and animal interference, becoming a large tree with a trunk diameter in excess of 1 m. The leaves are larger and more oblong in shape, and in larger specimens it is not unusual to find leaves with fewer spines or even entire margins. The cupule is larger, bell-shaped, enclosing more of the acorn, with longer, linear scales, which are slightly reflexed and covered with grey pubescence. While the general view is that Q. calliprinos grows in the Eastern Mediterranean, Bean (1976b) mentions it is native also to Algeria.
Several British specimens clock in at 8 m tall on the Tree Register (2020), and of these the one with the largest girth is a tree at Borde Hill, West Sussex (58 cm trunk diameter measured at 0.5 m, round several stems near the base). At Sir Harold Hillier Gardens, a multistemmed plant was 9.1 m tall in 2020 (Barry Clarke pers. comm.). When measured for the Tree Register in 2020, a tree at the Yorkshire Arboretum in England was 7 m; when planted in 1982 it was 45 cm tall and it reached 3 m in its first decade. It is a grafted scion of a tree at Arboretum Trompenburg, the Netherlands (Yorkshire Arboretum records). A specimen at Buckingham Palace had reached 7 m in 2020, at an age of 20 years (M. Lane, pers. comm.). At Kew and Wakehurst Place it is represented by collections made in Spain by Tony Hall, in Greece by Tony Schilling, and in Cyprus by John Whitehead (H. Baldwin pers.comm. 2021). These records suggest that the species grows taller in cultivation in the UK than in the wild, where it rarely reaches 7 m, according to le Hardÿ de Beaulieu & Lamant (2010).
The epithet coccifera means ‘bearer of coccum’. Coccum (Latin derived from Ancient Greek κόκκος) is usually translated as berry, but it refers specifically to the gall of the Kermes Oak, used in the past to create a beautiful scarlet dye. In fact, the chromatic culprit is not the gall, but the larval insect inside it, Kermes ilicis (formerly Coccus ilicis). The dried remains of the insects were crushed to prepare the much sought-after dye. While alive, the insects resemble small grains the size of peas, clinging to the leaves of the oak, on whose sap they live. For a long time the galls were taken to be a seed or excrescence of the tree—hence the Greek name kokkos (‘grain, seed’)—and the oak was referred to as the grain tree. The etymological ramifications stemming from this oak are numerous: the word ‘crimson’ derives from kermes, which can be traced back to the Arabic qirmiz; ‘vermilion’ reached English via the French vermeil, meaning ‘worm’, ultimately from Latin vermiculus ‘a little worm’ (i.e. a caterpillar-like insect larva); the botanical epithet coccinea, meaning scarlet, derives from coccus; and the word ‘ingrained’ can be traced back to ‘grain tree’, the common name for Q. coccifera. Following the Spanish conquest of Mexico, kermes dye was replaced by cochineal, which is extracted from an insect that grows on Opuntia (the name cochineal may also derive from coccus). Le Hardÿ de Beaulieu & Lamant (2010) claim that the name of the Kermes Oak is of Celtic origin, from quer meaning oak and mez meaning acorn, but this by all accounts appears to be a red (or perhaps, in this case, crimson) herring (Harper 2020; Bulletin of Miscellaneous Information 1910).
Quercus calliprinos was described by Webb in 1838. The name calliprinos derives from Ancient Greek, and means ‘beautiful oak’: κάλλος (kallos) = beauty + πρῖνος (prinos) a name for Holm Oak (Q. ilex). The common name Sindian Oak derives from the local Palestinian name (Stapf 1920).
In Australia this oak is known as Gallipoli Oak, named after the World War I campaign in the Turkish peninsula of that name. Soldiers of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) came across a prickly shrub that scratched their arms and bare knees, but which to their surprise bore acorns. Some of them sent acorns home and trees grown from them have served as memorials, particularly ones at Murndal, near Hamilton in Victoria, and at Geelong Grammar School in Melbourne, home and school respectively of Captain W.L. Winter-Cooke. In 2015, to mark the centenary of Anzac Day, which commemorates the Gallipoli campaign, seedlings propagated from these trees were planted in schools around Australia. Aside from the historical significance, there is an etymological affinity between the oak and the peninsula: Gallipoli also derives from the Greek word kallos, coupled with the word for city, πόλις (polis) (Cameron 2015).
A further historical footnote for Q. calliprinos regards a famous tree at Mamre, near Hebron, a Palestinian city in the southern West Bank. It is now a dead trunk supported by metalwork, but according to tradition it marked the spot where the prophet Abraham pitched his tent when angels came to him and promised him a son and heir. The Bible (Genesis 18 v. 1) states that Abraham camped for some time amongst the oaks of Hebron, though translators differ on whether they were oaks or terebinths (Pistacia terebinthus), and in some translations they are rendered simply as ‘the sacred trees’, or all reference to trees is dropped and the place described as ‘the plains of Mamre’. Photographs show the oak reached its prime around the turn of twentieth century, and it was said to be around 18 m tall, with a trunk circumference of 7 m; according to Bean (1976b) it was the largest and oldest specimen of its kind. Otto Stapf (1920) estimated it had sprouted around 1150 CE, based on the annual rings of a branch preserved at Kew. It must be assumed that it replaced a previous tree, as one existed that was said to have been visited by pilgrims during the Crusades. The site is held sacred by all three monotheistic religions, and in 1868 the Russian Orthodox Church acquired it and built a monastery nearby. It has been a popular destination for Christian pilgrimage and also much visited by Jews, though since the Hebron accords with the Palestinian Authority their access has been limited, resulting in shared reverence rather than shared access. Knowlton and Jacobs (1901) recount that in 1852 a large limb was broken off by lightning, and the wood from it made up ‘eight camel loads’. Four years later, in the winter of 1856–7, it was damaged further by a great snowstorm that left Jerusalem covered in snow for many days. One of the oak’s finest branches broke under the weight of the snow. According to Bean, it was from this branch that a section was cut and sent to Kew, providing the material for Stapf’s dendrochronological deductions. The tree died in 1996, but a young sprout emerged among the roots in 1998. This is considered a particularly good omen, as tradition holds that when the tree dies the Antichrist will appear. It is not the only superstition linked to the tree: Sir Joseph Hooker noted that when assistance was sought to cut up the snow-felled branch in 1857, none was to be found, for local lore held that whomsoever should cut or maim the tree would lose their first-born son (Haddock 2018, Bean 1976b).
The species is gaining popularity in California, propagated from specimens planted in 1964 in the Shields Oak Grove at the University of California, Davis, sourced from Israel. It appears to have acquired a unique common name there: Levantine Live Oak. Thanks to its drought tolerance, it grows well in California’s Mediterranean climate. According to Dave Muffly, acorns placed in shelters in a woodland near Stanford University, Palo Alto, have grown for 15 years completely unassisted by supplemental irrigation. Though it is unlikely this tree will become a popular landscape tree in California – due to its shrubby growth habit and spiny leaves—it may be a good option for dry buffer landscape areas (Muffly 2020)
Trees labelled as Quercus calliprinos or Q. coccifera subsp. calliprinos are found in all four hemispheres, with specimens recorded in collections in Europe and the USA, in Australia and New Zealand, and in Argentina, where a specimen in Grigadale Arboretum had reached close on 8 m in height in 2019, at an age of 20 years. The UK and Ireland Champion for this name, according to the Tree Register (2020) grows in the National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin, in Ireland (11 m × 28 cm dbh in 2012), and the runner up can be found in the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens at 9.3 m × 22.8 cm dbh (Barry Clarke pers. comm.). It is worth noting that the Champions for Q. coccifera are somewhat shorter. The specimen at Geelong Grammar School in Victoria, Australia (see above), planted in 1916, was 10 m tall in 1990 (Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria 2020).
Tree-like forms were described as subsp. rivasmartinezii by Capelo & Costa (2001) from a population in Serra de Arrábida, in southeastern Portugal. The distinguishing characters described by the original authors (Capelo & Costa 2001) appear to fall into the range exhibited by typical Q. coccifera (Christensen 1997). In subsp. rivasmartinezii the leaves are sub-entire or spinose-dentate, 1.9–3.4 × 0.9–1.25 cm, with 7–9(–11) pairs of secondary veins, while in typical Q. coccifera they are sub-entire or spinose-serrate, 1.1–5.2 × 0.7–2.9 cm, with 4–8 pairs of secondary veins. Quercus coccifera occurs around the Mediterranean basin, and subsp. rivasmartinezii is isolated on the Atlantic coast. It was described from a population in Serra de Arrábida, in southeastern Portugal. The distinguishing characters of these trees appear to fall into the range exhibited by typical Q. coccifera (Christensen 1997). For some, including le Hardÿ de Beaulieu & Lamant (2010), it is simply an arborescent ecotype of Q. coccifera. Grimshaw & Bayton (2009) reported that this taxon was represented in collections only by young specimens that resembled the shrubby form typical of the Kermes Oak, and that it would take some years before they attained tree-stature. A specimen under this name at Jardín Botánico Iturraran, however, from seed collected in Serra de Arrábida, appears to be already taking on a tall and slender habit (see image below) and to have grown significantly faster than Q. coccifera (F. Garin pers. comm. 2020). There is a group of 3 plants at Sir Harold Hillier Gardens, the largest 4.2 m × 19.8 cm diameter at the base in 2020 (B. Clarke pers. comm.). Tree-like Q. coccifera have been reported in other areas of Portugal and across the border in Extremadura and Huelva in Spain (B. Chassé pers. comm. 2020). The subspecies was named in 2011 in honour of Spanish botanist Salvador Rivas Martínez (Capelo & Costa 2001).
Q. coccifera hybridizes with Q. rotundifolia in the wild (Vázquez et al. 1993). A small tree of what is believed to be this hybrid is growing at Arboretum des Pouyouleix, France. Planted in 2006 it was 4 m tall × 4.8 cm dbh in 2020 with small, leathery, very spiny leaves no longer than 2.5 cm (B. Chassé, pers. comm. 2020). It originated from seed collected at Alto de las Nieves, Cadiz, Spain by Dorothy Holley in 2001 and was originally called Q. ilex var. microphylla. The same garden also has a young plant of this hybrid grown from seed collected in Valle de Santa Ana, Badajoz, Spain in 2016. A notable specimen of what may also be this grows in the Arboretum Gaston Allard, Angers, France, as Q. ilex ‘Microphylla’. (le Hardÿ de Beaulieu & Lamant 2010). The correct name for this hybrid is uncertain. Vazquez et al. (1993) listed it as Q. × airensis Franco & Vasc. but Francisco Vazquez (pers. comm. 2020) believes this may be a form of Q. coccifera and there may be an earlier name for the hybrid.