• Discovering and identifying the Oracle Oak

    by  • November 6, 2010 • Plant Profiles, Sierra Foothills • 22 Comments

    Discovering new natives

    I have always loved the names of plants. I don’t know why, but I must know what a plant name is and then look up all the information I can find on it. This property of ours, in the Central California foothills has given me lots of plants to identify and apparently, after ten years here there is more to learn! Fun!

    Oracle oak leaves and bark

    Oracle oak, Quercus morehus, leaves and bark

    All about the Oracle Oak

    In writing the page, here on this site, about existing plants at our place, I have tried to find an ID for the oak up on the hill above the house.  I had guessed it was a black oak, but when looking for confirmation, found that the leaf was different from the photos I saw online.

    Just this week, I emailed my friend Bonnie Bladen at Intermountain Nursery nearby and asked what oak this could be. I had already looked at Calphotos and Calflora and Las Pilitas Nursery, two good sources of information. I was surprised when she emailed back that it was an oak hybrid, called an Oracle Oak, Quercus moreha or Quercus morehus.  She says:

    Hi Sue,

    You must have found that tree in North Fork which is one of the local areas where there are lots of them. It is a cross between the Black Oak, Quercus kelloggii, and the Live Oak, Quercus wislizenii. They call it the Oracle Oak, or Quercus morehus. It ony occurs in areas where there are lots of one of the parent species and not many of the other parent and between Oak ‘sub-tribes’ that are related to each other. The leaf looks like a cross between the big lobed Black Oak leaf and the small, sometimes serrated Live Oak leaf. It is an interesting occurrence and they are beautiful trees. Hope that helps. Look that up on-line and you can learn more.


    How interesting! I walked down our hill and found that the two other oaks that turn a soft yellow like the one on the hill, are also Oracle Oaks. The large 50 foot oak at the bottom of the property is definitely a Black Oak, and all the rest are Interior Live Oaks.

    I did  look it up and the Oracle Oak is a fairly rare occurrence and was written about by Willis Linn Jepson, the authority on California flora in California, in a book called The silva of California’ in 1910, one hundred years ago. Here is an excerpt:

    (If you’re not interested in the intricacies of native plant life, skip on to something else!)

    Natural Hybrids

    Quercus Morehus* is a name given by Dr. Albert Kellogg to a singular tree which has until later years been little known. While there is by no means consensus of opinion it is generally regarded as a form of hybrid origin, one parent being the Black Oak and the other the Interior Live Oak.

    A. California Black Oak (Q. kelloggii), a tall, deciduous tree; B. Interior Live Oak (Q. wislizenii var. frutescens), a large, evergreen shrub; C. Oracle Oak (Q. x morehus)

    A. California Black Oak (Q. kelloggii), a tall, deciduous tree; B. Interior Live Oak (Q. wislizenii ), a large, evergreen tree; C. Oracle Oak (Q. x morehus)a small, partly deciduous tree that retains numerous leaves during the winter months. The leaves of Q. x morehus (C) have the intermediate size and lobes of Q. kelloggii), and the marginal spines of Q. wislizenii

     In support of this opinion it may be said (1) that the individuals seem intermediate between the two species named, (2) that they are variable in character, (3) that some of these variable forms show other hybrid characteristics in that they recall in certain features what are probably remote ancestors instead of their immediate parents, (4) that the number of individuals is few, (5) that the range is discontinuous, and (6) that they are eccentric in production of acorns.

    Quercus Morehus has, however, not even yet received that special and thorough study which its interesting character deserves, and some of the points stated may lose in weight on further investigation. It occurs at scattered points in the Sierra Nevada, in the Berkeley Hills, on Mt. Tamalpais, on the Van Arsdale Ranch at Ridgewood in Mendocino County, but is most common in the Mt. St. Helena Range from Twin Sisters Peak northward to the region of the Ukiah-Blue Lakes grade.

    A very considerable number of trees occur on the eastern slopes of Twin Sisters Peak in western Solano County from near the valley level to 1800 feet altitude, and these in their foliage show every gradation between the Interior Live Oak and the Black Oak (Fig. 5).

    Some of these trees, however, are clothed with leaves which, while in a formal sense intermediate in character between the species named, are so suggestive of the leaves of a genus closely allied to the oaks that these particular trees were constantly spoken of in the field as “chestnut trees” at the time of the field examination. There were no acorns on any of these trees in the autumn of 1903° and it is thought that this form as a rule fruits sparingly, but Carl Purdy, who holds views contrary to the author as to its specific character, says that certain trees near Ukiah, long familiar to him, fruit most freely. In studying the fruit it will be most interesting to remember that the acorns of the two assumed parents are very dissimilar in structure.

    In the Sierra Nevada of Calaveras County it is called Evergreen Black Oak, since it holds its leaves like those of the Live Oak until the new leaves come in the spring. In El Dorado County it is termed Spanish Oak by the settlers, who value its wood above that of either parent.

    A Morehus Oak stands at the northerly end of Lagoon Valley, Solano County. R. H. Piatt, who has observed this tree for several years, says the acorns “usually blight in the cup,” but the tree bore fruit in the fall of 1903 (Pig. 5).

    Since the above was written I have had the following note from the Kaweah region, written by Ralph Hopping: “There are three Quercus Morehus trees at the head of Sheep Creek. One is seven feet in circumference and had a good crop of acorns in 1907. A few feet from this tree stand both Q. Kelloggii and Q. Wislizenii, and the characteristics of both are wonderfully blended in the hybrid. The foliage, while having the sharp stiff leaves of Q. Wislizenii (only larger) retain the hair at the end of the lobe as in Q. Kelloggii. The acorn cup

    9 On October 3, 1908, the writer revisited the locality and collected acorns from two typical Morehus Oak trees. Most of the Morehus Oak trees appeared to be sterile. A tree with the “chestnut type” of foliage stands two hundred yards north of the wagon grade in a swale about one mile from the entrance gate to the Twin Sisters water reservation at the valley level. The ground beneath this tree was covered with half-grown dropped acorns. Numerous Quercus Wislizenii trees were fruiting freely, nearly every one examined having its own peculiar type of acorn and foliage. Many of them were especially interesting as showing indications of being secondary or tertiary hybrids between Quercus Wislizenii and Quercus Morehus. A few trees of Quercus agrifolia were observed on the mountain; their acorns were evidently ripening later than those of Quercus Wislizenii.

    Oracle Oak leaf

    Oracle Oak, Live Oak and Black Oak leaves

    Fig. 5. Quercus Morehus Kellogg, a, b, acorn and leaf of tree in Lagoon Valley, B. H. Piatt, c, d, e, f, g, h, series of lea’es, showing variation from Quercus Wislizenii to Quercus Kelloggii. Twin Sisters Peak, W. L. J., nos. 2381, 2379, 2386, 2377, 2375, 2377, respectively, a = natural size; b-h= X

    is a blend between the two and about midway in size as in the acorn, which has the Kelloggii pubescence and in some cases the stripe of the Live Oak acorn. The trunk is very much like the Black Oak.”

    « Specimens from an undoubted Quercus Morehus tree at West Point, Calaveras County, have been sent me recently by Mrs. Augusta D. Reid, who says the acorns ripen in advance of any other oak. The cups are deep-cupped as in Quercus Wislizenii; the nuts-are cylindric, ten to twelve lines long, six lines in diameter, and blunt at tip, thus suggestive of Quercus Kelloggii. Another hybrid tree, or rather cluster of six sprouts from an old stump, grows near Sebastopol. Acorns have never been produced according to Mrs. Charles L. Wheeler, who has had the cluster under observation.

    -End quote-

    Note: I’ve since walked around the place and discovered that four more large oaks are Oracle Oaks, not Black Oaks like I first thought. Cool!


    Sue Langley, a passionate gardener and photographer lives and gardens with her husband and Corgi, Maggie on 7 acres just south of Yosemite, Zone 7 at 3000 feet. She also manages the Flea Market Gardening Facebook page and website.

    22 Responses to Discovering and identifying the Oracle Oak

    1. November 6, 2010 at 7:12 pm

      Wow, how fascinating is that? Well, I’ll take that as an inspiration to try to identify the oak I saw on a hike yesterday. What fun!

    2. November 7, 2010 at 8:16 am

      OK, Town Mouse, you like geeky fun, too. hahaha Yes, I was oddly happy about it!

    3. November 8, 2010 at 9:00 pm

      What a cool sleuthing success! I MUST know plant names myself, so I can empathize. There’s a small oak from the mountains an hour to the east that I’ve been dying to plant, but it breeds easily with one of the two local species so I’ve resisted.

    4. November 9, 2010 at 9:42 am

      I’m not sure from where the need to know plant IDs and Latin names comes. I like knowing exactly the plant we’re talking about and never like it when the Latin names get changed for any reason. James, why not plant your oak if it pleases you? An oak you manage to plant near you will do what it wants…and may bring an interesting…or unexpected surprise.

    5. November 9, 2010 at 10:15 am

      Very interesting post. I had never heard of the Oracle Oak. And I’m surprised to learn that they are in the Sierra foothills and right in my backyard in the Berkeley hills and Mt. Diablo. I haven’t id’d many oaks, but it’s something I’m interested in starting.

    6. dizndat
      April 6, 2012 at 9:44 pm

      I finally identified a mystery tree in my back yard in Lafayette, CA. It is a small Oracle oak. I had always assumed it was a Red Oak because it grows under one. However I noticed that not all the leaves fell off like the larger oak. Ida Geary’s book, The Leaf Book had a picture which sent me to Google

      • April 11, 2012 at 7:18 pm

        I’ll have to look up that book, dizndat….I only learned about this variety by chance. It’s a very attractive oak. Do you have Live oaks and Black oaks there as well?

    7. September 11, 2012 at 9:25 am

      i have tried to grow an oracle oak from its acorns for many years now. sadly all the acorns turn out as sterile or as a black oak or live oak never the original. gave up last year. i think only nature can produce this tree,but that’s only my opinion

    8. September 11, 2012 at 6:19 pm

      Thanks for writing, Levant, ….it’s amazing to me that anyone knows about this tree! I would think it would be fairly difficult to propagate this tree. I have a few seedilngs growing underneath, but haven’t yet tried to transplant them. It would be interesting to try with some acorns sometime…

    9. Terry R Webster
      November 8, 2012 at 8:41 pm

      Hello- I have an Oracle oak growing behind my house in El Dorado County. I believe we have more than one of these on the property (20 acres), but I am only really sure about the one. It’s a gorgeous tree and I am guessing it is about 200 years old, judging by the size. I have never seen any acorns on it, but knowing that is a possibility, will look very hard for them! A branch came off and my brother is going to mill the wood- it looks like it would be a gorgeous red-brown. I think, along with Levant, it would be a difficult tree to propagate, seeing as it is one of Nature’s odd combos!

      • November 9, 2012 at 7:28 am

        Thanks, Terry, for writing….you may be able to tell if you have others by *when* they turn yellow.. There are four or five here and they all turn at the same time, much later than other trees, like the black oak. They *do*get long pointed acorns and you may find seedings if you don’t keep the area raked off. I’m glad to know there are more around to enjoy!

    10. Kevin Baldwin
      April 5, 2014 at 1:58 pm

      We have several of them in western Shasta Co.

      • Sue Langley
        April 5, 2014 at 2:37 pm

        Nice to know how far their range is, Kevin, thanks!

    11. Mike Bruce
      June 22, 2014 at 12:51 pm

      There are several known Oracle oaks in the Granite Bay area, close to Folsom Lake.

      • Sue Langley
        June 22, 2014 at 1:37 pm

        Nice to know, Mike…you must have Black Oaks and Live oaks there..

    12. Doug Barber
      January 6, 2015 at 8:54 pm

      I just found your article by doing a search for a cross between black oak and live oak. I have them all over my property in Sutter Creek. Thanks for the information. I now have identified 6 oak varieties on my place, in decreasing order of occurrence: live oak, black oak, valley oak, oracle oak, blue oak, and canyon live oak. Plus, lots of ponderosa and foothill pine, manzanita, a few small madrones, and 1 very small cedar. Here’s hoping the last 2 survive here at 1500 feet.

      • Terry R Webster
        January 8, 2015 at 11:51 am

        For Doug- The top of my hill is 1500 feet and we have two cedars on the north side which my father planted 40+ years ago. They are surviving quite well. Too, there are cedars be the side of Highway 50 at about 1000 feet and they’re doing okay too. Still haven’t seen any madrones, but the manzanita have migrated from the east side of the hill to the west and the two we transplanted to the front yard are doing really well.

    13. Patrick
      May 16, 2015 at 5:28 pm

      We have a number of these trees on our property at 1500 ft in el dorado county. They seem to grow straight upwards and are not particularly wide at the base. The front of our property is mainly black oaks and the back is mainly live oaks. Its fun to ID the trees. I found that we even have a few douglas fir and ponderosa pine trees which is uncommon for this elevation. Hopefully they can survive the drought though.

    14. Carla Kitchen
      January 27, 2016 at 3:17 pm

      Location: Posey, California. 3000′ elev. (east out of shape valley between Porterville and Bakersfield. Lived here 11 yrs. previous owner informed me that 2 particular oak is an Oracle Oak. It’s form is beautiful. Per your drawings the leaves match. This one indeed has acorns. My veg garden slightly uphill and out of drip line produces several seedlings every year. Don’t know if this info is of your interest other than another location where this tree is present. We have 80 acres of black oak, live oak and others.

      • Sue Langley
        January 27, 2016 at 7:00 pm

        Hi Carla,…yes, good to know that the Oracle Oak is in your area and putting out seedlings. .I’ve found that this tree, turns gold last of all the oaks on our place and loses its leaves last as well,…as late as December.

    15. Patrick Sirianni
      August 17, 2016 at 6:28 am

      I live in Niagara Falls Canada and last summer the oldest Oak tree in our town finally gave up and fell. It was believed to have been around since the war of 1812 and was on a street that was once an old portage route around the Falls. In the 1970s it began to decay and the middle of it was hollow. Instead of destroying the tree, the city filled the hollow section near the base of it with cement to make it sturdy!….lol….Well it lasted another 45 years so I guess u could say that they were successful in prolonging its life. As soon as the tree came down last summer, I was on the scene and with a tape measured around the tree which turned out to be 16 feet round. Then I picked up a dozen or so acorns hoping one day to be able to plant a descendant!. I think perhaps the tree may have been aWhite American Oak. For the most part, the acorns spent the winter in the fridge to simulate a cold climate and in the spring I planted them in small pots. For the most part nothing happened, and then a couple of the pots seemed to have some growth coming up and as a result I think I have two small oak trees growing but I am unsure. If I send you a photo of one of the small leaves I picked from it, would you be able to tell if indeed it is actually an oak tree?

      • Sue Langley
        September 12, 2016 at 1:41 pm

        What a great story! I hope your acorns grow,…gotta have faith they will!

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