A medium-sized deciduous tree, rarely exceeding 70 ft in the wild state, with a rather open crown, sometimes a shrub; bark more deeply furrowed than in the common oak, the ridges on old trees broken into segments by transverse furrowing; winter-buds and first-year stems covered with soft, grey hairs. Leaves mostly 2 to 31⁄2 in. long, about half as wide, obovate or narrowly so, obtuse at the apex, cuneate or slightly heart-shaped at the base, with usually four to eight rounded or pointed lobes on either side, upper surface at first covered with grey down, most or all of which falls away by the end of the summer, lower surface permanently and usually very thickly covered with down; stalk 1⁄4 to 3⁄4 in. long. Fruits either very shortly stalked or stalkless, solitary or as many as four together, each acorn about half enclosed in the cup, which is covered with very numerous closely appressed downy scales.
This species has a wide range from W. France and N. Spain through Central Europe and the Balkans to the Caucasus. It is a warmth- and light-loving species, found, in favourable climatic conditions, on both siliceous and limestone soils, but usually only on limestone at the northern extremities of its range. The true species is very rare in cultivation and of no importance as an ornamental. Its chief claim to attention is that in south-eastern Europe and parts of southern Central Europe it is the dominant tree in associations that contain so many of the most interesting of European small trees and shrubs, e.g., Ostrya carpinifolia, Carpinus orientalis, Prunus mahaleb, Fraxinus ornus, Cornus mas, etc. Owing to the felling of the oak canopy this association now mostly takes the form of deciduous brushwood (shiblyak).
There are three examples of Q. pubescens at Kew, the largest measuring 68 × 9 ft (1965).
subsp. palensis (Palassou) Schwarz Q. palensis Palassou. – Leaves less than 23⁄4 in. long, less lobed than in typical Q. pubescens. Scales at the base of the cup convex, united, those at the top longer, free, with cuspidate tips. Pyrenees and N. Spain.
Q. brachyphylla Kotschy Q. lanuginosa subsp. brachyphylla (Kotschy) Camus – A small tree or shrub. Leaves elliptic to broadly so, with usually three or four broad, blunt lobes on each side, mostly 2 to 21⁄2 in. long, 11⁄2 to 2 in. wide, rounded or truncate at the apex; lateral veins springing from the midrib at a rather wide angle. Scales of acorn cup appressed, the lower ones ovate, swollen, the upper ones lanceolate, thinner. A very distinct species, common in Crete and also found on the mainland of Greece, in the archipelago, and on the mainland of Anatolia around Izmir (Smyrna).
Q. congesta Presl Q. pubescens var. congesta (Presl) Gurke – Leaves up to 51⁄2 in. long, with six to eight pairs of lobes, undersides grey-green, more or less downy. Scales of acorn-cup linear-lanceolate, not appressed. Said to be common in Sicily and according to Dr Schwarz is also found in Sardinia and southern France.
Q. virgiliana (Ten.) Ten. Q. robur var. virgiliana Ten.; Q. lanuginosa var. virgiliana (Ten.) Camus – Some authorities consider this to be no more than a race of Q. pubescens, distinguished by its sweet, edible acorns, which are often over 1 in. wide and roundish in shape. So interpreted it is confined to Italy. But Dr Schwarz defines it as a distinct species whose identity has been obscured by hybridisation with Q. pubescens, from which it differs in its larger leaves (up to 6 in. or slightly more long) on petioles up to 1 in. long (twice as long as in Q. pubescens) and the loosely appressed scales of the acorn-cup. He gives as its distribution: Corsica and Sardinia east through Italy and the Balkans to the Black Sea.