By Pat Pawlowski, January 2023. Reprinted from Let’s Talk Plants! January 2012, No. 208.
Creative Commons image from Encyclopædia Britannica of California scrub oak. California scrub oak, Quercus berberidifolia (formerly Q. dumosa.)
From the Archives - Scrub Oak
In the autumn, some people get excited about football. Others get excited about acorns.
For acorn-obsessed persons like yours truly, the inclusion of an acorn-producing plant in the yard is a must. What can be more fascinating than a tree adorned with tiny chubby roundish objects, each wearing its own little hat? Admit it, didn’t you use the tiny caps as hats for your little dolls, or to cover the heads of small toy soldiers? Entire acorns could be piled into the back of a Tonka truck as pretend cargo.
Of course, the technological child of today would probably consider me crazy; after all, the ubiquitous computer or texting device can offer a child everything – except real life.
Anyway, back to acorns.
Now that you’ve decided that you can’t live without acorns, you might have a problem. Knowing that most acorn-producing trees may grow to be the size of Rhode Island, how can those with smaller yards hope to have an oak tree? The answer, gardening friends, is simple: Acquire a new member for your plant team: the scrub oak.
This compact oak can eventually grow to fifteen feet tall as a shrub or small tree. On a drive through an impossibly-perfectly-landscaped neighborhood, I noticed a large symmetrical evergreen bush. Upon closer inspection I discovered it was Quercus berberidifolia, formerly Q. dumosa, or scrub oak. I was surprised because in the wild, the multi-trunked scrub oaks really let their hair down, and may sprawl beautifully this way and that. But you, the coach, can call the play: judiciously pruned or un-, your scrub oak will make you proud.
The wonderful Oaks of California, by Pavlik, Muick, Johnson and Popper, a very informative book with gorgeous photos, covers ten varieties of scrub, or shrub, oaks. The species that occurs frequently in San Diego County and is most available from native (and sometimes other) nurseries, is Q. berberidifolia (try not to get a headache if asked to pronounce it).
Local Native Americans didn’t have time to get a headache about the botanical name of scrub oak. Years ago they were too busy making shawii, a sort of pudding and a staple of their diet, from the acorns. It took time and lots of work. For those desiring the recipe, there are numerous websites you can tackle.
In addition to offering sustenance, scrub oak provided sturdy branches used to make “rabbit sticks” which, when thrown correctly, brought down a rabbit to add to the menu. Nowadays, an enraged bunny-plagued gardener might make good use of such a stick. Others in the animal kingdom, such as quail and many types of songbirds, will enjoy the acorns plus the chance to perch in the oak and cheer as you sprint after that rabbit.
Afterwards you, the exhausted hardworking rabbit-stick-tossing gardener, will appreciate a chance to sit down, which you can easily do because scrub oaks don’t need fertilizer and don’t need much water. They’re happy just to be in the sunshine, producing tiny flowers that will develop into wonderful acorns that, in time, will fall to earth.