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Quercus berberidifolia has a bioregional distribution that includes California and Baja California. Within California the range consists of the North Coast Ranges, Sierra Nevada foothills, Tehachapi Mountains, central western California and southwestern California. Preferred habitats are arid slopes; the species is often a dominant shrub in McNab cypress stands.

Scrub oak usually occurs in shrub form from one to three meters in height. This evergreen species has leaves 1.5 to 3.0 cm long with a petiole of two to four mm; leaf blades are oblong, elliptic, or roundish, with margins somewhat spiny to toothed; these marginal teeth are abruptly pointed. Leaf upper surfaces are generally flat to wavy, and exhibit a shiny, green appearance; lower leaf surfaces are appressed-puberulent, dull, pale green. Acorn cup is 12 to 20 mm wide and five to ten mm deep, hemispheric to bowl-shaped, with thick scales that are clearly tubercled; ovoid nuts are one to one to three cm in characteristic size.

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