The leaves of 52 species of Lithocarpus in China were studied. The adaxial leaf epidermis was investigated by light microscopy. Epidermal cells of the adaxial surface were classified into three types on the basis of the outline of their anticlinal walls, i.e. sinuate, straight and curved. The abaxial leaf epidermis was investigated by light microscopy and scanning electron microscopy. The following types of trichome were observed: appressed parallel tuft, stellate, fused stellate, papillae, stipitate fasciculate, solitary unicellular, appressed laterally attached unicellular, curly thin-walled unicellular, bulbous and thin-walled peltate. The fused stellate, appressed laterally attached unicellular and curly thin-walled unicellular trichomes were reported in Lithocarpus for the first time. The appressed parallel tuft trichome, which is recognized as a salient characteristic of Lithocarpus, was not found in 15 species. A cladistic analysis was performed on the basis of the leaf epidermal features. According to the leaf epidermal features and several morphological characteristics, 26 of the 52 species could be divided into seven groups. Similar groups can be found in Barnett's and Camus' systems. The trichomes of four genera in Fagaceae are listed and compared. Lithocarpus had 14 types of trichome, 11 of which were identical to types found in Quercus, more than in Castanopsis and Cyclobalanopsis. The evolutionary trends of trichomes in Fagaceae are discussed and a new point of view is raised. © 2011 The Linnean Society of London, Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society, 2012, 168, 216–228.