Summary of coast live oak and its traditional use

Kumeyaay name: ‘esnyaaw

Coast Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia)


Coast Live Oak is one of the only California native oaks well adapted to the coastal environment, growing mainly west of the central valleys, as far north as Mendocino County, and as far south as northern Baja California in Mexico. These majestic beauties have been known to live 250 years, reaching heights of 30 to 75 feet and girths of 9 to 12 feet. However, their habits do vary with some younger trees being more shrub-like. The term “Live” in its name signifies that it is an evergreen oak. The leaves are dark green, oval, ¾ to 2 ¾ inches long and ½ -1 1/2 inches wide with a leathery texture and a spiny-toothed leaf margin. The typically convex (cup-like) shape of the leaves is thought to hold dew and mist onto the leaves, providing moisture and allowing the tree to survive with very little rainfall. This fog harvesting capability is especially suited for coastal regions.


Acorns are a staple food for the Kumeyaay. These acorns are used to make shawii (an acorn mush). Acorns are gathered in late fall, stored in granaries, dried, pounded, sifted, leached in special baskets to remove the, and boiled into thick mush. The bark is used to treat toothaches and a decoction of chipped bark is used as a wash for sores. The wood serves as fuel for firing pottery.


The Cahuilla people of southern California also had multiple uses for the coast live oak. When hunting small mammals, Cahuilla hunters used the meat from the interior of acorns to bait their animal traps. The scent of the acorn meat could draw in a range of wild animals. 


Interestingly, these acorns were also used as noisemakers. The Cahuilla tied acorns to a string and rattled the acorns across their teeth to produce a clacking sound.






Acorns from the coast live oak

photo credit: Eugene Zelenko, CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0, via Wikimedia Commons