Quercus gambelii Nutt.

Fagaceae – Beech Family

Quercus gambelii

Diné: Che ch'il
English: Gambel oak
Jicarilla Apache: Chóshch’ilii
Tewa: Kwae

Natural History

Gambel oak is a common shrub to small tree ranging from Wyoming south to northern Mexico which inhabits a variety of habitats around Durango and the Four Corners including pinyon-juniper forest, mountain shrublands, and Ponderosa pine forests.  Gambel oak generally occurs as clonal groups of shrubs, reproducing vegetatively from a deep and extensive root system.  The species can also grow in single tree form in optimal habitats.  Leaf shape is quite variable and can be affected by environmental conditions and through hybridization with other closely related species.  Around the Durango area (Animas Mountain and Horse Gulch) small-leaved oaks interspersed within occurrences of typical Gambel oak are the result of ancient hybridization with the smaller-leaved desert species Quercus turbinella found today in northern New Mexico that during past climatic fluctuations extended its range north.

Ecologically Gambel oak provides important food and shelter for many wildlife species. Large mammals will utilize the foliage for browse while both large and small mammals, as well as birds, will use the acorns as an important food source. Insects, particularly cynipid wasps, will lay their eggs in the leaves forming small galls which vary in structure depending upon the individual species.

Human history and use

Gambel oak has a long history of use by peoples across the Four-Corners region ranging from its use as a construction material to food and medicine. The bark, due to a high concentration of tannins, was used to tan animal hides.  Leaf galls, formed through interaction with oak gall wasps, were used as a dye. Acorns were a staple food and were ground into a meal or eaten whole.  A decoction of the root was used for treating postpartum pain, as a cathartic, and as a “life medicine.”


Caramillo, T. 2020. Three Jicarilla Apache ceremonies and their specific use of Southwest plants. Biology Senior Thesis, Fort Lewis College.

Heil, K.D. et al. 2013. Flora of the Four Corners Region, Vascular Plants of the San Juan River Drainage: Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah. Monographs in Systematic Botany from the Missouri Botanical Garden, Vol. 124. Missouri Botanical Garden Press, St. Louis.

McCauley, R. A. et al.  2012. Influence of relictual species on the morphology of a hybridizing oak complex: an analysis of the Quercus x undulata complex in the Four Corners Region. Western North American Naturalist 72: 296–310.

Simonin, K.A. 2000. Quercus gambelii. In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online]. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory (Producer). Available: https://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/plants/tree/quefgam/all.html [2021, December 6].