With only two species Chrysolepis or chinquapins in California, identification theoretically should be simple. Not so! There is significant overlap between the species in the height they attain and in their gross morphology. One species grows to be a tree, while the other is a shrub. However, there is a subspecies of the tree, C. chrysophylla, that only grows as large as a shrub (up to 10 feet in height). Although the shrub (Chrysolepis sempervirens) is usually about 5 feet tall, it can reach a height of 8 feet or more. The identification of a tall tree is usually obvious, yet subtle differences in leaf shape and bark texture must be used to distinguish a small, shrubby tree (C. chrysophylla) from a large, healthy shrub specimen (C. sempervirens). Except where their ranges overlap, location may also provide a clue to chinquapin identification.
Bush chinquapin is a perennial native found in California, Oregon and Nevada. Its habitat is coniferous forests or chaparral, usually on exposed rocky slopes, between 2,000 and 12,000 feet in elevation.
A prostrate to spreading shrub, bush chinquapin is multi-stemmed and displays a rounded crown. The bark is greyish brown, thin and smooth. The evergreen leaves are alternate, simple, leathery and elliptical with slightly rounded tips and entire margins. The upper leaf surface is dull green. The lower leaf surface is covered in dense golden to rusty scales and is slightly hairy.
Bush chinquapin has separate male and female flowers borne on the same plant. Often the female flowers are clustered on the stem below the male pollen-bearing flowers, which occur at the stem tips. The female pistillate flowers may also occur on separate stems than the staminate flowers. Neither the male or female flowers have petals. The pistillate flowers are three-celled with three styles surrounded at the base by an involucre (whorl) of overlapping scales. As they mature the female flowers become enlarged, prickly and bur-like. Male bush chinquapin inflorescences are densely flowered, erect catkins. Each flower has 6 to 17 stamens.
Related to the chestnut, bush chinquapin fruits are nuts located inside a spiny, spherical bur. Each bur usually contains three nuts. Bush chinquapin fruits mature in the autumn of their second year.
Native Americans ate bush chinquapin seeds, which are rather sweet, raw and roasted. Birds and rodents also feast on bush chinquapin seeds.
After a fire or being cut bush chinquapin readily resprouts.
Formerly, the genus name for the chinquapins was Castanopsis. Bush chinquapin is also commonly known as Sierra chinquapin. Derived from the Greek, the genus name Chrysolepis means yellow scaled and refers to the golden leaf underside: “chryso” = yellow and “lepis” = scale. Evergreen, from the Latin, is the meaning of the species name. “Semper” means always and “virens” means green.
These bush chinquapin were growing along Modoc National Forest Road 40N11 near Adin CA (Modoc County).