An evergreen, the coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia) is found in the coastal ranges of California from Sonoma County south to Baja California in Mexico. A long-lived tree (150 to 250 years), the coast live oak prefers the well-drained soils of coastal hills and plains. It is rarely found more than 100 kilometers inland.
Coast live oaks can grow up to 80 feet in height, but rarely do so. Usually older coast live oaks are twisting and sinuous and do not grow straight. They can hybridize with other oak species making identification difficult.
The bark of old trunks is thick, dark grey and broken into irregular plates with slight furrowing. Twigs are dull grey to reddish brown and are covered with short, downy hairs for two years. The stiff, leathery leaves of coast live oak are often convex on the upper surface and resemble holly leaves. Dull green above and paler on the lower side, the leaves are oblong to oval with a curled back margin and usually have spines along the margin. Tufts of grey to rusty hairs occur on the leaf underside in the vein axils.
This is a “bad” year for acorns as Leonard and I have difficulty finding acorns on any species of oaks. These coast live oaks on Jacks Peak (Monterey CA) did not have acorn crops either. Were there any live oak acorns they would be slender and chestnut brown with a turban-like cap that enclosed about a third of the nut in its cup. (This may be a hard winter for many birds and animals that depend on acorns for winter food.) Several Native American groups used coast live oak acorns as a food staple.
Coast live oak wood is hard and heavy. It is not useful in the hardwood industry because of its twisting growth pattern and because old trunks are often hollow due to dry rot and termite infestations. Early farmers would use the wood, with its odd angles, for specialty purposes such as joints or farm implements. Coast live oak wood is mainly used as a clean, long-burning fuel.
California live oak and encina are two other common names for Q. agrifolia. Encina was the Spanish name for these trees.
These picturesque oaks, although many do not know their name, are common along the coast of California and provide the backdrop for many a vacation photograph.