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Tree to 10 m (rarely 20 m). Bark greyish, fissured, with irregular longitudinal plates. Twigs pale greenish brown with stellate tomentum. Leaves evergreen, 2.5–7 × 1.5–5.5 cm, obovate to elliptic or orbicular, immature leaves densely covered in reddish brown glandular hairs; in mature leaves the upper surface is glabrous or with some pubescence along the midrib, the lower surface covered with slender reddish brown or dirty yellow hairs (both stellate and simple), or scale-like trichomes, 6–8 secondary veins on each side of the midrib, margins slightly retuse, entire (in mature trees) or with spiny teeth, base rounded to slightly heart-shaped, apex obtuse; petiole 0.2–0.5 cm long or absent, tomentose. Infructescence 0.5–2.5(–4) cm long with one to four cupules. Cupule shallow, 0.4–0.5 × 0.8–1.1 cm, outside grey-pubescent, inside densely tomentose; scales greyish, pubescent, ovate, elliptic, or lanceolate, to 20 mm long, those at the edge of the cupule extend past it. Acorn ovoid, with only its base enclosed in the cupule, 1.2–2.5 cm long, solitary or groups of up to 5, on a short, erect, spike ~2–3 cm long. Flowering May–July, fruiting September–November of the same year (China). (Huang et al. 1999; Zhou & Coombes 2001; le Hardÿ de Beaulieu & Lamant 2010).
Distribution Bhutan Myanmar China Guizhou, W Sichuan, Xizang, Yunnan
Habitat Montane forests in association with Pinus, Tsuga and Abies spp., and subalpine scrub, between 2000 and 4500 m asl.
USDA Hardiness Zone 6
Conservation status Least concern (LC)
Trees of Quercus aquifolioides generally reach 10 m in habitat, but can attain 25 m if sheltered from the wind. Sometimes it is found as a shrub 1 to 4 m tall. The species was described in 1916 but was first introduced to Europe in 1908 when Wilson sent material to Kew (no trees have survived from this introduction). For a while, some authors considered it to be a synonym of Q. semecarpifilia, or a dwarf form of it. It is an attractive species featuring new leaves that emerge covered with hairs, reddish brown or brownish orange in colour, and leaf undersides covered in brownish felt, especially along the midvein. The young leaves are arranged in dense, erect rosettes. It can be distinguished from Q. spinosa by its uniformly tomentose leaf underside: in Q. spinosa tomentum persists only along veins at the end of the season. It is also close to Q. rehderiana (so much so that for Menitsky it is a synonym), but it can be distinguished by the short acorn stalks, which are long in Q. rehderiana, and by the abaxial surface of the leaf, which in Q. rehderiana becomes almost glabrous at season end. It can be easily distinguished from Q. longispica if female flowers are in evidence: in Q. aquifolioides their stalks are not longer than 4 cm, whereas in Q. longispica they are 5–16 cm long. (le Hardÿ de Beaulieu & Lamant 2010).
Grimshaw & Bayton (2009) draw attention to the indumentum on the underside of the leaves, which is a bright sulphur-yellow when young, darkening somewhat in older leaves.
Q. aquifolioides is in cultivation at Kew and Thenford House, England, from a 1988 collection made at 3690 m on the Zheduo Shan, Sichuan (SICH 376), when it was noted to be a shrub amongst Rhododendron and Salix. At both these sites it is slowly growing into upright young trees, reaching approximately 2 m in 2006 at Kew (Tree Register 2020), and 4.8 m at Thenford in 2020 (D. Webster pers. comm.). The Kew specimen had already flowered by 2009 (Grimshaw & Bayton 2009). At Chevithorne Barton, England, a tree grown from seed collected in Tibet in 2005 has grown well and reached 2.4 m in 2020 (J. MacEwen pers. comm.).
Eike Jablonski (pers. comm. 2020) reports that at Göttingen Botanical Garden in central Germany a plant grown from seed collected by Bernhard Dickoré in 1996 has made a vigorously growing bush, reaching 1.2 m × 1 m dbh by 2006.
The epithet indicates similarity to Ilex aquifolium (holly).