Tree 9–20 m tall, sometimes over 30 m, trunk 0.4–1.8 m in diameter, evergreen foliage persists two to four years, crown rounded, dense, and spreading. Bark smooth, greyish-brown to dark greenish brown, with fine orange fissures. Shoots glabrous, chocolate brown to dark brown, lenticellate; lenticels greyish brown or yellow, oblong, convex, hardening in the second year, creating a warty surface. Buds globose or ovoid, glabrous or glabrescent, up to 3 mm long, with small green scales, edges brown, apex rounded, brown, stipules linear, hairy, deciduous, 0.4–0.6 cm long. Leaves leathery, ovate to elliptic-lanceolate, often curved to one side, 5–18 cm × 1.5–5 cm, base rounded or almost cuneate, apex acuminate to shortly caudate, upper surface dark green, shiny, lower surface pale green or whitish, glabrous, margin entire at the base, with several short erect teeth in the apical half; midvein and 9–16 secondary veins slightly prominent below, impressed above, usually almost extending to the margin but not fusing; tertiary veins inconspicuous below; leaves emerge purple and glabrous. Petiole yellow green, glabrous, 1–3 cm long. Acorn cup almost hemispherical, attenuated at the base, 0.5–1 cm high × 1–2 cm wide, enclosing 1⁄3–1⁄2 the nut, comprising 6–9 rings with entire margins, outside whitish pubescent, inside glabrous, wall less than 1 mm thick; acorn reddish brown, narrowly ovoid, 1.4–2.5 × 0.7–1.5 cm, slightly pubescent or glabrous, in pairs or in groups of up to four on a fruiting spike 2–5 cm long and as thick as the supporting twig, apex rounded with conspicuous 5– or 6-ringed stylopodium. Annual maturation. (le Hardÿ de Beaulieu & Lamant 2010; Huang, Zhang & Bartholomew 1999).
Distribution China Anhui, Fujian, Guangdong, Guangxi, Guizhou, Henan, Hunan, Jiangsu, Jiangxi, Shaanxi, Sichuan, Taiwan, Yunnan, Zhejiang Japan Honshu, Shikoku, Kyushu South Korea Laos Thailand North Vietnam
Habitat Mixed mesophytic forests in mountain valleys; 200–2500 m asl.
USDA Hardiness Zone 7
RHS Hardiness Rating H6
Conservation status Least concern (LC)
Taxonomic note Menitsky (2005) included this species in Q. glauca as a synonym. This has unfortunately caused a lot of confusion as these species are the most commonly grown of Sect. Cyclobalanopsis and are very distinct. Quercus glauca has hairs flattened against the lower leaf surface while Q. myrsinifolia has narrower leaves more or less glabrous beneath.
Probably the most widely cultivated of the ring-cupped oaks, Q. myrsinifolia combines hardiness with attractive evergreen foliage. In late spring, this is enhanced by new growth in deep crimson to maroon that stands out against the vibrant green of the prior season’s leaves. In its native habitat it appreciates acid soils and appears to be calcifuge, growing on well-drained soils in mixed forests in mountain valleys (le Hardÿ de Beaulieu & Lamant 2010). It withstands and even craves summer heat and has proven somewhat drought tolerant, having survived nearly entirely dry seasons on the U.S. West Coast with no supplemental water (Hogan 2008); it also performs well in the wetter gardens of the U.S. Southeast (Weathington 2014).
Unlike other species in section Cyclobalanopsis, Q. myrsinifolia has a relatively northern distribution, which means it can be grown even in cool temperate regions (Coombes 2017). According to Sean Hogan (2008) it is up to six degrees Celsius hardier to frost than Q. glauca: many specimens have endured –23 to –18°C with hardly any damage. Washington State Park Arboretum also extols the species’ hardiness, noting that a merciless cold spell in 1989 resulted in only a little leaf burn (Hohn 1990). In addition, it tends to sprout later than Q. glauca, thus avoiding late frosts (le Hardÿ de Beaulieu & Lamant 2010).
It grows in several UK gardens, with many specimens exceeding 10 m in height. The tallest recorded was at Borde Hill Garden, reaching a height of 18 m in 2015, but it was dead by 2019 – it is listed as Q. glauca in Borde Hill’s records (Borde Hill Garden 2020). The current UK champion for height grows at Frensham Hall estate in Surrey, measuring 16 m in 2010; the champion for girth is at South Lodge, Horsham, West Sussex, with a dbh of 68 cm in 2018, measured at 80 cm due to a fork in the trunk. It appears to have suffered damage: in 2006 it was recorded as ‘regrowing healthily’ (The Tree Register 2021); in the 1988 Supplement to Bean’s Trees and Shrubs this tree merited the remark ‘a superb tree’, measuring 15 m × 46 cm in 1985 (Clarke 1988). At Caerhays, what was received as Q. myrsinifolia was planted in 1928 as an effective windbreak, reshooting effectively from the base if it is cut down (Williams 2014); recently doubt has been cast on the identity of the species involved – it may be Q. glauca (Williams 2021).
It is also widely planted in European gardens. At Arboretum de la Bergerette in France, it has proven a tough species, surviving dry conditions and outgrowing other ring-cupped oaks (Haddock 2012).
In the U.S. it is popular in cultivation due to its hardiness and ease of transplant; it is readily available form specialised nurseries in the South and West and is planted successfully as a street tree. A 130-year old tree in the Dunthorpe neighbourhood of Portland, Oregon reached 21 m with an 18 m spread. Sean Hogan noted that the species is more drought tolerant if temperatures are high, apparently metabolizing more successfully and thus withstanding stress. It seems to prefer summer heat: Hogan (2008) considered thsat it grew more slowly in the cooler conditions of Vancouver, but it has grown well at UBC Botanical Garden there: a tree accessioned in 1992 reached around 20 m in 2021 (D. Justice pers. comm.). Dirr & Warren (2019) recorded specimens to 15 m in Savannah, Georgia and Washington D.C. Like other evergreen oaks it can be easily propagated from cuttings. Acorns are produced on young trees, often in as little as five years. Mark Weathington (2014) recommends planting hardy forms together to produce seed for production, as hardiness may be affected by provenance, given the wide distribution of the species. Successful fruiting may depend on growing conditions: at Arboretum des Pouyouleix in southwest France, a tree planted in 2004 that has grown well (6 m high and 15 m spread in 2020) has been fruiting for several years but acorns never reach maturity (B. Chassé pers. comm. 2020).
The pale brown wood has traditionally been used in cabinet making, for tool handles, in construction, ship building, and for growing mushrooms (le Hardÿ de Beaulieu & Lamant 2010). It is also used to make high-quality drumsticks, the wood being about 10% heavier than hickory, the most popular choice; the oak sticks can withstand more intense playing styles and are longer lasting (Azzarto 2010).
In Japan, the trees were traditionally used as a windbreak and for living fences on farms. The common name in that country is shiragashi (‘white oak’), due to the colour of the wood, which is paler than Q. glauca (known as kurokashi ‘black oak’) (Matsumura 2021). It is also known as hosobagashi (‘narrow-leaf oak’), a name also applied to Q. salicina (K. Tokunaga pers. comm.). The common name in Chinese can be translated as ‘small-leaf evergreen oak’.
It was described in 1851 by Blume, who chose the epithet myrsinaefolia (subsequently changed to myrsinifolia according to modern spelling rules), presumably due to the resemblance of the foliage to one or more species of the genus Myrsine, though he did not provide any further explanation (Blume 1851). Myrsine derives from an ancient Greek name for the common myrtle (Myrtus communis) (Quatrocchi 2020). Quercus myrsinifolia was introduced to the UK from China in 1854 by Robert Fortune (Bean 1976).