Lithocarpus variolosus

Randal Mindell, the Garden’s resident paleobotanist, took today’s Botany Photo of the Day, and Steve Coughlin wrote the accompanying entry.

Fagaceae (the beech family) consists primarily of trees, but counts certain shrubby plants among its members as well. The family boasts between 7 and 12 genera, and includes around 1000 deciduous and evergreen species that, with the exceptions of tropical and southern Africa, are distributed broadly across the planet’s geographical and climatic regions. According to Flora of China, Fagaceae species constitute the majority of both China’s broad-leaved evergreen and mixed mesophytic forests between 500 and 3200 metres in elevation. Many of the species found in these forests serve as timber for carpentry, but the family has perhaps found its jolliest historical application in the production of libations, serving both as raw material for wine barrels and wine corks, and as a flavoring for beers as well.

Lithocarpus consists of about 340 evergreen species that are for the most part native to temperate and tropical Asia, though one species, Lithocarpus densiflorus, is native to western North America (California and southern Oregon). Typically, the leaves of Lithocarpus species are arranged spirally. The genus’s most diverse and primitive species are found in China’s Guangdong, Guangxi, and Yunnan provinces.

The species featured in today’s photo, L. variolosus, tends to reach its apex at a height of 20 metres. Its trunk wears a strong, silvery bark, and the leathery, dark-green leaves range from ovate to lanceolate in shape. Lithocarpus variolosus is among the hardiest of Lithocarpus species, but enjoys light shade when sited in searing heat. The plant initially flowers from May to July, and, the subsequent year, from July to September. The species was first introduced to North America around 1990 (at Quarryhill Botanical Garden in Sonoma County, California), and came here to UBC the following year. Thus far, L. variolosus has thrived in Vancouver’s climate. The species is easily propagated by seed or by cuttings, particularly when these last are collected in the fall from the growth of the current season.


Hogan, Sean. Trees for All Seasons: Broadleaved Evergreens for Temperate Climates. Portland, OR: Timber Press, 2008.

Lithocarpus variolosus

14 responses to “Lithocarpus variolosus”

  1. Eric in SF

    As educational as the entry is now I’m dying to know what we’re looking at! What is this odd looking structure?

  2. Meg Bernstein

    I love Timber Press books. Maybe the funny structure is the Litho part.

  3. George Vaughan

    Yes, please tell us about that worm (?) that apparently is about to make a meal of that leaf. It is a very strange looking creature.

  4. gail gidwitz

    Do we get to know the answer to everyone’s questions today? i.e. what IS that? G

  5. Randal Mindell

    The “worm” is not a worm at all. It is the inflorescence axis. Those discreet patches of stubble are in fact clusters of pistillate flowers en route to becoming fruits. Each flower has three hardened styles protruding from its apex. The basal bulge beneath these styles represents the place of the early, relatively undifferentiated cupule. There is a complementary pictures of the fruits developing that perhaps we can post at a later date. The litho part means stone, and applies to the hard nuts that this genus produces.
    I would also make a quick comment on Lithocarpus densiflorus. This species has long been thought to represent an anomalous North American occurrence of an otherwise Asian genus. Evidence from morphology, development and DNA has shown that this species is not related at all to the genus Lithocarpus. It is more closely related to North American Quercus. Here is a link to the article (if it works) for anyone interested:

  6. sheila

    Many thanks Randal for explaining what we were looking at! Most interesting.

  7. Douglas Justice

    For those who cannot access the article that Randal mentions, here is the abstract as it appears in Madroño 55(3):181-190. 2008:


    We investigated the phylogenetic relationships and taxonomic status of the castaneoid component (Lithocarpus and Chrysolepis) of the family Fagaceae that is endemic to the California Floristic Province (CA-FP). Over 7800 basepairs of nuclear and chloroplast DNA were analyzed in 17 taxa representing the breadth of phylogenetic diversity in the family. The genus Lithocarpus, as currently defined, is clearly polyphyletic due to the inclusion of L. densiflorus. Here, we designate this taxon as a new genus, Notholithocarpus, which can be recognized morphologically by its relatively small, subprolate pollen. Notholithocarpus is more closely related to Quercus, Castanea, and Castanopsis; Chrysolepis was resolved as the sister group to Lithocarpus sensu stricto. These results indicate that Notholithocarpus does not possess true ‘flower cupules,’ which define Lithocarpus sensu stricto, but like the oaks, the single flower per cupule is derived through the abortion of lateral flowers within each cupule. Further study is required to confirm this characteristic. A formal taxonomic treatment is presented with new combinations.

  8. Annie Morgan


  9. Lynne

    So the American beech isn’t really a beech after all? Interesting!

  10. Michael F

    Does anyone have access to a pdf copy of that Madroño paper?

  11. elizabeth a airhart

    thank you
    always interesting around here

  12. Connie

    This is a stunningly beautiful photo- composition, depth, detail, focus, line, contrast…
    Are the stubble patchse stiff enough to hurt if you sit on them? Do they hurt your fingers? Are all the twigs “twisty” like that? What a beautiful silver texture and color!
    The Lithocarpus densiflorus is obviously really a Quercus. How did they ever get it mixed up with a Lithocarpus?

  13. Randal Mindell

    The styles that make up the stubble in the inflorescence are not prickly in any way. They are hardened (“sclerotized”), but they fracture like anthracite when you apply even a nominal amount of pressure.While all the inflorescences are twisty like that, the vegetative branches are not.

    There are many reasons Notholithocarpus densiflorus was placed in Lithocarpus. The staminate inflorescences are erect and stick-like (in contrast to the lax male inflorescences of Quercus. It is also insect pollinated, as opposed to the strictly wind-pollinated true oaks. Pollen and floral characters also distinguish it from existing genera of Fagaceae.

    Lastly, one commenter questioned whether the American Beech was a beech at all. Fagus grandiflora, the America Beech, is still certainly a beech. Its the western species of Fagaceae that are the most anomalous. Perhaps the most interesting of all is the genus Chrysolepis, native to California, Oregon and southern Washington. Take a look at these cupules:$20CHINQUAPIN$20COPYRIGHT.jpg

  14. P. Manos

    Great photo Randal! Tanoak is not really an oak, but it is more closely related to oaks than to other species of Asian Lithocarpus. Need more data!

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