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Scientific classification Edit this classification
Kingdom: Plantae
Clade: Tracheophytes
Clade: Angiosperms
Clade: Eudicots
Clade: Rosids
Order: Fagales
Family: Fagaceae
Subfamily: Quercoideae
Genus: Notholithocarpus
Manos, Cannon & S.H.Oh
N. densiflorus
Binomial name
Notholithocarpus densiflorus
(Hook. & Arn.) Manos, Cannon & S.H.Oh
Notholithocarpus densiflorus range
  • Quercus densiflora Hook. & Arn.
  • Lithocarpus densiflorus (Hook. & Arn.) Rehder
  • Synaedrys densiflora (Hook. & Arn.) Koidz.

Notholithocarpus densiflorus, commonly known as the tanoak or tanbark-oak, is a broadleaf tree in the family Fagaceae, and the type species of the genus Notholithocarpus. It is native to the far western United States, particularly Oregon and California. It ranges from 15–40 meters (49–131 feet) in height, with a trunk diameter of 60–190 centimeters (24–75 inches).


It can reach 40 meters (130 feet) tall in the California Coast Ranges, though 15–25 m (49–82 ft) is more usual,[2] and can have a trunk diameter of 60–190 centimeters (24–75 inches). The bark is fissured, and ranges from gray to brown.[2]

The leaves are alternate, 8–13 cm (3–5 in), with toothed margins and a hard, leathery texture.[2] At first they are covered in dense orange-brown scurfy hairs on both sides, which wear off over time, more slowly on the underside of the leaf. The leaves will persist for three to four years.

The seed is an acorn 2–3 cm (341+14 in) long and 2 cm in diameter, very similar to an oak acorn, but with a very hard, woody nut shell more like a hazel nut. The nut sits in a cup during its 18-month maturation; the outside surface of the cup is rough with short spines.[2] The nuts are produced in clusters of a few together on a single stem.

Currently, the largest known tanoak specimen is on private timberland near the town of Ophir, Oregon. It has a circumference of 7.9 m (26 ft), is about 2.51 m (8 ft 3 in) in diameter at breast height, and is 37 m (121 ft) tall with an average crown spread of 17 m (56 ft).[3]

Notholithocarpus densiflorus var. echinoides[edit]

Members of populations in interior California (in the northern Sierra Nevada) and the Klamath Mountains into southwest Oregon are smaller, rarely exceeding 3 m (9 ft 10 in) in height and often shrubby, with smaller leaves, 4–7 cm (1+122+34 in) long; these are separated as "dwarf tanoak", Notholithocarpus densiflorus var. echinoides. The variety intergrades with the type in northwest California and southwest Oregon. Tanoak grows as a shrub on serpentine soils.


By 2008, the species was moved into a new genus, Notholithocarpus (from Lithocarpus), based on multiple lines of evidence.[4] It is most closely related to the north temperate oaks (Quercus) and not as closely related to the Asian tropical stone oaks (Lithocarpus, where it was previously placed), but instead is an example of convergent morphological evolution.

While related to oaks (as well as chestnuts), the name is written as 'tanoak' because it is not a true oak.[2]


It is native to the far western United States, found in southwest Oregon and in California as far south as the Transverse Ranges and east in the Sierra Nevada. It grows from sea level to elevations of 1,200 m (3,900 ft).[2]


Tanoak is shade tolerant and benefits from disturbances. It is susceptible to wildfire and wounds that are exploited by rot fungi.[2] It is one of the species most seriously affected by the disease "sudden oak death" (Phytophthora ramorum), with high mortality reported over much of the species' range.[5]

Fine hairs on the young leaves and twigs discourage deer from eating them.[2] Various animals, including squirrels, deer, and bears, eat the nuts.[2]


The nut kernel is very bitter, and is inedible for people without extensive leaching. Some California Native Americans prefer this nut to those of many oak acorns because it stores well due to the comparatively high tannin content. The Concow tribe call the nut hä’-hä (Konkow language).[6] The Hupa people use the acorns to make meal, from which they would make mush, bread, biscuits, pancakes, and cakes. They also roast the acorns and eat them.[7] Roasted, the seeds can be used as a coffee substitute.[8]

The name tanoak refers to its tannin-rich bark, a type of tanbark, used in the past for tanning leather before the use of modern synthetic tannins. By 1907, the use of tanoak for tannin was subsiding due to the scarcity of large tanoak trees. There were not enough trees around for a worthwhile economic return. By the early 1960s, there were only a few natural tannin operations left in California. The industry was beginning to switch to a synthetic alternative.[9] The tree's tannins has been used as an astringent.[10]

A mulch made from the leaves of the tanoak can repel grubs and slugs.[8]

The wood is strong and sometimes used as lumber, but suitable trees are usually inaccessible. It is also used as firewood.[2]


  1. ^ Stritch, L. (2018). "Notholithocarpus densiflorus". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. 2018: e.T62005598A62005616. doi:10.2305/IUCN.UK.2018-1.RLTS.T62005598A62005616.en. Retrieved November 19, 2021.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Arno, Stephen F.; Hammerly, Ramona P. (2020) [1977]. Northwest Trees: Identifying & Understanding the Region's Native Trees (field guide ed.). Seattle: Mountaineers Books. pp. 225–229. ISBN 1-68051-329-X. OCLC 1141235469.
  3. ^ "Tanoak Lithocarpus densiflorus". American Forests. Archived from the original on December 13, 2010. Retrieved March 24, 2022.
  4. ^ Manos, Paul S.; Cannon, Charles H.; Oh, Sang-Hun (2008). "Phylogenetic relationships and taxonomic status of the paleoendemic Fagaceae of Western North America: recognition of a new genus, Notholithocarpus" (PDF). Madroño. 55 (3): 181–190. doi:10.3120/0024-9637-55.3.181. S2CID 85671229. Archived from the original (PDF) on March 20, 2017. Retrieved July 11, 2011.
  5. ^ Sudden Oak Death at University of California, Riverside, Center for Invasive Species Research
  6. ^ Chesnut, Victor King (1902). Plants used by the Indians of Mendocino County, California. Government Printing Office. p. 405. Retrieved August 24, 2012.
  7. ^ Merriam, C. Hart 1966 Ethnographic Notes on California Indian Tribes. University of California Archaeological Research Facility, Berkeley (p. 200)
  8. ^ a b Natural Medicinal Herbs: Reference page = Herb latin name: Lithocarpus pachyphylla
  9. ^ University of California Oak Woodland Management: Home Url = Reference page = Does It Make Cents to Process Tanoak to Lumber
  10. ^ Tappeiner, John C.; McDonald, Philip M.; Roy, Douglass F. (1990). "Lithocarpus densiflorus". In Burns, Russell M.; Honkala, Barbara H. (eds.). Hardwoods. Silvics of North America. Vol. 2. Washington, D.C.: United States Forest Service (USFS), United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) – via Southern Research Station.

External links[edit]

Media related to Notholithocarpus densiflorus at Wikimedia Commons