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Plant Focus

Quercus acutissima subsp. kingii
Quercus acutissima Carruth. is a species whose natural distribution covers a vast territory in East and Southeast Asia, from central Nepal...

Species Spotlight: Quercus acutissima subsp. kingii Menitsky

Quercus acutissima subsp. kingii at the Arboretum des Pouyouleix 
(accession number APO1965) © Gérard Lionet

Quercus acutissima Carruth. is a species whose natural distribution covers a vast territory in East and Southeast Asia, from central Nepal in the west to the Pacific coast of Honshu in the east, and from northern Szechwan to central Burma, northern Thailand, and Laos in the south. The species was described in 1861 by William Carruthers, a Scottish botanist who held the post of Keeper of the Botanical Department of the British Museum (today known as London’s Natural History Museum) from 1871 to 1895. Since then, of the 11 infra-specific taxa that have been described, only one is considered valid today: Q. acutissima subsp. kingii Menitsky, named in honor of Sir George King, who became Superintendent of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Calcutta, in 1871, and the first Director of the Botanical Survey of India in 1890.

The nomenclatural history of this taxon is, to be a bit sardonic, somewhat along the lines of Abbott and Costello’s well-known sketch, Who’s On First? But the confusion in our story comes from . . . Castanopsis indica.

Before becoming Castanopsis indica in 1863, the plant that we refer to as this was named twice: first as Castanea indica Roxb. ex Lindl. in 1830; second, as Q. serrata Roxb. in 1832 (a later homonym of Q. serrata Murray, which was published in 1784). Based on Roxburgh’s description and plate, Mr. Endlicher published the name Q. roxburghii Endl. because he recognized that Mr. Roxburgh’s Q. serrata was not the same plant as Mr. Thunberg’s.

So, who’s on first?

Correct! Mr. Endlicher’s Q. roxburghii is in fact . . . Castanopsis indica.

Then . . . based on the type specimen of Q. roxburghii Endl. some authors believed this taxon to be what is now called Q. acutissima subsp. kingii and proceeded to produce several other names for it, notably Q. serrata var. roxburghii and Q. acutissima subsp. roxburghii. In 1973, Menitsky realized that whilst these authors may have been describing the plant we now call Q. acutissima subsp. kingii, the type for the names they proposed is Q. roxburghii Endl. and so in fact “our” plant did not have a properly published name.

And where does the aforementioned Sir George King fit in all of this? In 1889, he published, in the Annals of the Royal Botanic Garden, Calcutta (Vol. II), The Species of Artocarpus Indigenous to British India and The Indo-Malayan Species of Quercus and Castanopsis. Menitsky designated as the type specimen for Q. acutissima subsp. kingii King’s plate No. 16 . . . and not No. 18, as indicated in Menitsky’s The Oaks of Asia (p. 118). King’s plates are magnificent, and a pdf is available for download here.

The remarkable yellow pubescence on young leaves 
(Arboretum des Pouyouleix, APO1966) © Gérard Lionet

Though this subspecies is quite similar in many ways to the type, the leaves of the latter are ovate-lanceolate or oblong-elliptical while of the former, more ovate-elliptical and generally longer (15 -20 cm as opposed to 8 -20 cm). The number of parallel secondary veins can exceed 20 for the subspecies. The feature that most clearly distinguishes the subspecies from the type is that the young leaves are covered with a thick, yellow pubescence that lingers for a while. The distinction between the teeth being curved for the type and erect for the subspecies is less clear, as close inspection reveals that curved and erect teeth can be found on both.

Q. acutissima subsp. kingii is apparently very rare in cultivation. After a survey of the major collections in Europe, it appears that it can be found in only three gardens and it is not present in any of the US collections that are a part of the Quercus Multisite Collection.

M. Albert Dumas, who has an arboretum 25 km south of Grenoble (France), has a specimen grown from seed collected in 2010 at Finch Corner in East Manipur (India) at an elevation of about 1,400 m, between Imphal and Ukhrul, by Nick Macer. It was planted in 2013, measuring 61 cm, and although M. Dumas reports that it frequently suffers during his harsh winters, it measures 1.62 m today.

Juvenile and adult leaves on Albert Dumas’ specimen © Albert Dumas

At Heanley Farm (UK), David Gooder has three Q. acutissima subsp. kingii, two from the Nick Macer collection and one from seed collected at the same site by Paul Barney. The first two were planted in 2015 and the third one in 2016. David reports that one of them is today about 4 m tall.

Vigorous growth at Heanley Farm © David Gooder

The two that are growing at the Arboretum des Pouyouleix (France), from the Nick Macer 2010 collection, were planted in 2013 in a relatively protected area but where the soil is of inferior quality than in other parts of the Arboretum. APO1965 was 1.21 m tall when planted and APO1966, 0.91 m. During the first two years, as is often the case with trees planted in this area, they did not grow very much, but remained healthy. APO1965 started putting on significant growth in the spring of 2016 and today measures about 3 m. The other is growing as a nice rounded bush, very healthy but not very tall (about 1 m). I suspect it could become a tree if I were to prune some of those long side branches . . .

Should this subspecies be given specific status, as has happened for what used to be called Q. acutissima subsp. chenii (Nakai) Camus or Q. acutissima var. chenii (Nakai) Menitsky? The differences between the former and the type are morphologically as significant as those between the latter and the type.

Quercus chenii was published by Nakai in 1924, before becoming a subspecies in the hands of Mme Camus in 1934, a variety after Menitsky’s treatment in 1973, and finally re-becoming a species only fairly recently.

So who knows? Maybe the final chapter in the nomenclature of the plant called today Q. acutissima subsp. kingii is yet to be written.