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Shrub or tree 1–15 m tall, to 0.6 m dbh, evergreen, of dense, rounded to spreading habit. Bark dark gray or blackish brown, flaky, with superficial longitudinal fissures. Young shoots slender, grayish brown pubescent, later glabrescent. Petiole 3–5 mm, covered in brownish or tan starry tomentum; leaves grouped at the end of branches, leathery, obovate, narrowly elliptic, or narrowly ovate, 2–6(–8) cm long × 1.5–3 cm wide, glabrescent or midvein abaxially remaining pilose with age, base rounded to nearly cordate, margin glandular serrulate, apex mucronate to shortly acuminate; secondary veins 8–13 on each side of midvein; tertiary veins abaxially inconspicuous to evident but very slender. Female inflorescences 1–4 cm. Cupule cup-shaped, 6–8 mm long × 1–1.2 cm wide, enclosing one third to one half of nut, scales to 1 mm, brown, covered in white tomentum. Acorns born singly or in pairs, nut ellipsoid, 1–2 cm long × 0.5–1 cm; wide acorn scar 3–4 mm in diameter, flat or slightly raised; stylopodium c. 1 mm in diameter, easily broken. Flowers March–April, acorns ripen September–October of the following year. (Huang et al. 1999; le Hardÿ de Beaulieu & Lamant 2010).
Distribution China Anhui, Fujian, Guangdong, Guangxi, Guizhou, Henan, Hubei, Jiangxi, Shaanxi, Sichuan, Yunnan, Zhejiang Japan Honshu, Shikoku, Kyushu, Ryukyu North Korea South Korea
Habitat Mixed mesophytic forests at 300–1200 m asl.
USDA Hardiness Zone 7
Conservation status Least concern (LC)
In China, this widespread oak grows in mixed forest on calcareous soils. It is found in rocky locations on the Japanese coast where it constitutes sclerophyllous formations with other evergreens such as Euonymus japonicus, Eurya marginata, Ilex integra, I. pedunculosa, Pittosporum tobira, and Rhaphiolepis umbellata. Other associates include Juniperus rigida, Pinus thunbergii, Amelanchier asiatica, Elaeagnus pungens, Diospyros kaki, Rhus sylvestris, and Camellia japonica. It forms a small tree in forests but remains shrubby in locations with human impact (le Hardÿ de Beaulieu & Lamant 2010).
In cultivation Quercus phillyreoides is an amenable species, indifferent to pH and tolerating heavy clay and sea spray. While appreciating warm sites, it has survived temperatures of -20 °C for several days (le Hardÿ de Beaulieu & Lamant 2010). It was introduced to the British Isles in 1861 by Richard Oldham when collecting for Kew. A tree from this collection measured 8 m × 76 cm dbh in 1971, while another, planted in 1908 and probably from seed collected by E.H. Wilson in China, measured 7 m × 69 cm dbh in 1972 (Bean 1976). This species is widely cultivated and is found in collections around the world. A tree growing at Caerhays, Cornwall, is likely the tallest in the UK and Ireland, measuring 11 m × 43 cm dbh in 1984 (Tree Register 2020). It was received from Wakehurst Place in 1920 and by 1966 had reached 7 m (Williams 2014). The official UK & Ireland champion grows in Sir Harold Hillier Gardens, where it reached 11 m × 60 cm dbh in 2010 (Tree Register 2020).
In the USA Q. phillyreoides is grown at New York Botanical Garden, Scott Arboretum (Penn.), Starhill Forest Arboretum, (Ill.), UC Davis (Calif.), and University of Washington Botanic Garden (Wash.). Four plants at the US National Arboretum, Washington DC., of cultivated origin, were grown from seed collected by John Creech on Tsushima Island, Japan in 1978 (US National Arboretum 2020).
Bean (1976) spoke highly of this oak, describing the Kew specimen as ‘a handsome, cheerful bush, well clothed to the ground with shining foliage’. He also noted that on some specimens the young foliage was bronze-tinted and that the species rarely produces acorns in Britain – the same seems to apply for a tree in Grigadale Arboretum in Argentina, where despite growing vigorously and reaching 9.3 m × 37 cm dbh in 24 years, acorns are few and far between. However, fruit has ripened on trees in the Iturraran Botanical Garden, Spain (see photo below) and in Hackfalls Arboretum, New Zealand (pers. obs. 2019). According to Charles Williams (2014), it withstands a great deal of wind and salt-laden gales. In Chevithorne Barton, England, a line of clipped trees has made a fine hedge, around 20 metres long and 3 m high (J. MacEwen pers. comm. 2020).
It is commonly planted in Japanese gardens, often as a hedge or as clipped topiary. It bears a superficial resemblance to the shrubby, opposite-leaved Phillyrea latifolia, after which it is named (Coombes 2017). The epithet was originally published as phillyraeoides and some references still use this spelling. The common name in Japanese, ubamegashi, is of uncertain origin. According to le Hardÿ de Beaulieu & Lamant (2010), ubame = ‘old woman’s eyes’ (from uba = ‘old woman’ + me = ‘eye’; gashi = ‘oak’). This apparently refers to the yellowish brown colour of new leaves, but the connection with the eyes of old women is not clear. A more common theory is that the me in ubame derives from a homonym that means ‘new buds/leaves’: 芽 (new buds /leaves) and 目 (eye) are both pronounced me in Japanese. Tannin extracted from the new shoots of this oak was involved in the preparation of a black dye used in ohaguro, an ancient practice in which married women stained their teeth black (K. Tokunaga, pers. comm.).