After years of passing by this bush on holiday in the high mountains, vaguely noticing its presence, I finally identified it: bush chinquapin.
I’ll give myself a little slack by saying that this sociable bush is almost always growing in with something else: mountan whitethorn in this case (with redberry very close by, but not in this picture. It seems weird, but I really need some kind of wide-angle lens to really get these low, spreading mountain-plant communities, even though they aren’t all that huge).
See what I mean about inconspicuous?
Here it’s growing with a rather small wild currant (on the right). At least I’m pretty sure that’s a currant.
But it’s a rather handsome plant on its own. It wouldn’t make a bad groundcovery/foundation shrub, in a dry environment. To start it growing, though, you’d need to find its seeds.
I cut open one of the seedpods–a very prickly process–to see if I could find the nuts. They are supposed to have one to three bitter-tasting nuts which mature every other year. All I found was some very small hard possibly seed-like things, and more prickles. I picked the driest, most mature-looking seedpod I could find, so I may have gotten one that matured too soon and without seeds. Or I might have just been expecting something more impressive from that big ball of prickly armor.
It’s very odd to see these horse-chestnut-like pods on an inconspicuous Sierra bush that rarely comes above my knee. Chinquapins (also spelled Chinkapins) are more closely related to oaks than to horse chestnuts, though. They’re in the same family, though they aren’t in the Quercus genus.
Bush chinquapins have made the mountain adaptation of going miniature; there is a Great Chinquapin (also called Chinquapin Oak, just to keep us botanically confused), although I have never seen it. Great Chinquapin grows 40 to 80 feet, and shows the same prickly pods in its pictures. Its seeds are supposedly edible, like small chestnuts.
The underside of the leathery, stiff bush chinquapin leaves has a faint brushing of yellow hairs, kind of like Labrador tea. The tops have the water-conserving shininess of a lot of mountain plants.
And that’s all I could find or observe on bush chinquapin. I guess it’s an inconspicuous plant to a lot of people.
Tracy I. Storer and Robert L. Usinger, Sierra Nevada Natural History, University of California Press, 1963. (They have recently come out with a more recent version, but this is the one I own and still use.)
The Audobon Society Field Guide to North American Trees, Western Region, Alfred A. Knopf, 1980