Species Spotlight: Quercus semecarpifolia Sm.

by Meenakshi Negi and Ranbeer S. Rawal


Quercus semecarpifolia twig with young acorn

There are more than 35 species of oaks in India, many of which extend from Myanmar into Indian Territory. In the context of West Himalaya, five species of evergreen oaks, namely Quercus leucotrichophora (local common name: banj), Q. glauca (phaliyant), Q. lanata subsp. lanata (syn. Q. lanuginosa) (rianj), Q. floribunda (tilonj), and Q.  semecarpifolia (kharsu), grow naturally in the Kumaun region of northern India. Quercus leucotrichophora occurs at lower elevations and Q. semecarpifolia forms extensive forests at higher elevations and occurs as a climax species, i.e. dominant as long as sites are not disturbed (Troup, 1921). Quercus semecarpifolia, commonly known as brown oak, is the main forest-forming evergreen tree species from upper temperate to subalpine regions (2,500–3,300 m). The epithet semecarpifolia was given by James Edward Smith when he described the species in 1814 and refers to the resemblance of the leaves of this species to those of Semecarpus anacardium, an Indian plant known as “marking nut” by Europeans. Ink from the marking nut was used to mark clothing prior to washing, as the ink is insoluble in water (seme derives from semeion, meaning “a mark” in Greek). Quercus semecarpifolia is locally known as kharsu oak in the Kumaun region of Western

Flowering twig of Quercus semecarpifolia

Himalaya. It is found throughout the Himalaya from Bhutan westwards into Afghanistan, on the Myanmar-Manipur frontier, Thailand, and into China. On the southern slopes of the main Himalayan range this species often forms the limit of tree growth.

Description: A medium to large sized evergreen tree up to 3.5 m in girth and 30 m high. The bark is silvery-grey to blackish, rough, with shallow cracks, exfoliating in irregular woody scales. Its leaves are 5-10 cm long × 2.5-8 cm wide, nearly sessile, oblong-ovate, entire, spinous toothed and obtuse. The upper surface is glabrous, the lower surface is brown and tomentose with lateral nerves bifurcating in 6-12 pairs.  The leaf base is cordate (heart-shaped), and petioles are up to 5 mm long. Male catkins are 5-12 cm long, softly pubescent. Female flowers arranged in few-flowered short spikes. Acorns, borne singly, are dark brown, globose, and smooth. Cupule scales are thin and imbricate, and cover only the base of the nut.

The species is important both silviculturally and economically. Its uses have included wood for fuel, leaves for fodder, bark for tanning, and acorns for food by animals and birds. The timber is hard and pinkish brown.

As is the case with most oaks, it commonly reproduces through its seeds. However, the seeds are frequently damaged by insects and also eaten by birds and wild animals, including bears, squirrels, rats, and monkeys. Poor seed crops and high rates of consumption by animals have significantly impacted on the ability of oaks of this species to regenerate naturally.

The seed germination of all the Western Himalayan oaks is hypogeal (occurring on or below ground), the radical emerging from the apex of the nut and the plumule extricating itself by the elongation of the

Natural seed germination of Quercus semecarpifolia in Kumaun Himalaya 

cotyledonary petioles. In the case of Q. semecarpifolia this elongation is of an abnormal character with the petioles remaining united in the form of a tube, which serves as a protection to the minute plumule, while the elongation of the united petiole enables the young plant to reach the soil surface as soon as possible. A short period of seed viability combined with vivipary (germination while still attached to the parent plant) and the intolerance of its seedlings to shade are the characteristic features of this oak. The seed maturation and germination of this oak is synchronized with the commencement of monsoon rainfall.

A rise in temperature and water stress may advance seed maturation, which might result in the breakdown of the synchrony between the commencement of monsoon rains and seed germination. Moreover, the seedling is a light demander and fails to establish itself under conditions of shade (Singh and Singh, 1987).

During recent field studies carried out between 2013 and 2015, involving quantitative ecological analysis of oak forests in the Western Himalaya, reports of failure of natural regeneration of this oak were recorded on Naina Peak (also known as China Peak) in the Nainital region. No individuals were found in the seedling layer, but the cause of this has not yet been ascertained. The declining trends of natural regeneration of Q. semecarpifolia need to be taken as a serious warning. It appears that regional climate warming may be one of the reasons driving temporal changes in the temperate oak forests of the Western Himalaya. This scenario, therefore, calls for further long-term investigations on the trends of shift and the possible consequence of changing climate and anthropogenic disturbances on compositional patterns of oak forests.

Field study: quantitative analysis of Q. semecarpifolia forest in Kumaun Himalaya 


All photos © Meenakshi Negi


Osmaston A.E. 1927. A Forest Flora for Kumaon. Allahabad: Government Press.

Ralhan P.K., Saxena A.K., Singh J.S. 1982. Analysis of forest vegetation at and around Nainital in Kumaun Himalaya. Proceedings of Indian National Science Academy. B 48 121-I37.

Singh J.S. and S.P. Singh. 1987. Forest Vegetation of the Himalaya. Botanical Review. 53: 80-192.

Troup R.S. 1921. The Silviculture of Indian Trees. Vol. I-III. Oxford: Clarendon Press.