Oldest living Torreya taxifolia is in Columbus, Georgia

   Columbus, GA is on the east bank of a free-flowing section of the Chattahoochee River, and until the first decade of the 21st century, three old torreya trees were still found on residential properties in a historically old neighborhood that bordered the river.

As of 2016, only one of the three trees still stands. Its top is dead and a huge section of lower bark has been stripped away on the street-side of the tree.

In November 2016, Torreya Guardians Jack Johnston (far left) and Clint Bancroft (left) made a pilgrimage to measure the tree and take small cuttings from branches in order to preserve the genetics of this ancient tree (cloning via rooting the branchlets).

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LOCATION: 538 Front Avenue, Columbus GA

   Clint Bancroft reports:
"Jack Johnston and I made a pilgrimage to Columbus where we collected 6 gallon-size bags of cuttings from the old Torreya. These have been distributed among four different propagators, so we hope for the best. I have probably a hundred cuttings myself, so if we have even modest success we will have succeeded in saving the genes of this venerable tree.

"Jack and I were able to measure the living tree's circumference. At four feet from the ground it measures an impressive 80 inches!"

"All the cuttings we took from the Columbus tree are from basal sprouts. I told the owner to never let anyone remove them from the base of the tree. The basal sprouts were 3-4 feet tall."

Very little information is available on this exceptional tree (and the two nearby that recently were removed by the homeowners). So questions remain: Were they planted from nursery stock, or were they originals that the old homes were built near? If the latter, had there also been wild specimens along this section of river, but the remaining trees were felled for their valuable wood before anyone recorded their presence (as natives) here?

These questions are crucial, because the Chattahoochee River would have been the key conduit for southward displacement of this large-seeded species from the s. Appalachians during peak glacial times of the Pleistocene.


Owing to questions that Connie Barlow posed to the group in November 2016 about whether one could manipulate a rooted cutting to eventuate in a normal-growth tall tree, a new area of exploration has opened. Jack and Clint collected branchlets only from the basal sprouts — and some of those cuttings would have been terminal growth (hence predisposed to grow in a normal, vertical tree pattern, rather than the shrubby horizontal, "plagiotropic" growth normally resulting from rooted branchlets). Their goal was to obtain cuttings for plagiotropic growth, as that is the best way to have reproductive structures emerge earliest. When working primarily to ensure genetic continuation of an important tree, rooted branchlets endowed with the horizontal predisposition are ideal. If, however, one wants to attempt to produce an actual tree, extra work will be necessary.

JEFF MORRIS has had the most success thus far in producing vertical growth from cut lateral branchlets. He wrote, "The method used in the greenhouse that worked for me was to stake it with a metal tree stake for the season, and when there was no doubt as to the health of the root system, I carefully transplanted it into a new pot. Two seasons of this, and I achieve an upright growth for two T.taxifolias. A third tree was not predisposed to this type of transplanting due to advanced growth of the root system that would have resulted in damage.  But if it's less than 4 years since rooted, you'll probably have some success."

U.S. FOREST SERVICE colleagues concurred with Jeff, in part: "In our collective view, if taken care of properly (tie the tops up, trim laterals) and conscientiously, they should forget that they're branches in 4-5 yrs and grow 'right'. So, just relax and go along with the flow. (but really, our collective view is to tell them to get seedlings!)"

FRANK CALLAHAN in Oregon wrote: "The prime representative answer to your question can be resolved by observing the two Torreya taxifolia specimens located in Hawthorn Park, Medford, Oregon. Although both of these trees were rooted from lateral cuttings, there is presently a plethora of vertical growth emanating from the lateral branches, which if rooted will result in plants that will eventually become trees. The same is true for redwoods, capture and root vertical cuttings from lateral branches and those terminal cuttings will eventually become "normal" growth trees."

30 MARCH 2016: Clint Bancroft, Torreya Guardian of Greasy Creek TN, visited the sole remaining Columbus tree in March 2016 and took the above photos. These photos confirm that the tree is male. Also, an important learning is that Florida Torreya matures its pollen over a sequence of time — not all at once. This would appear to be a helpful survival strategy to maximize the possibility that pollen release would occur (a) when the weather and wind conditions are adequate for pollen dispersal, (b) that pollen might disperse over days in different directions as the wind shifts, and (c) that timing would overlap with a time span of receptivity of female trees.
  • Photo left: Trunk and branchlets of male tree. Notice how some branchlets bear a linear set of pollen structures; others bear structures only at the tips.

  • Photo center: Pollen is released before the vegetative buds (light green) at the branchlet tips fully open in the spring.

  • Photo right and below: These photos indicate that male structures open sequentially, with the last to open at the branchlet tip.

  •    2015 VIDEO: Ancient Florida Torreya in Columbus Georgia

    While visiting the famous sole remaining Torreya taxifolia in Columbus, Georgia, Connie Barlow was struck by its location right along a free-flowing section of the Chattahoochee River. The Chattahoochee is the main conduit between the peak-glacial plant refuge in n. Florida (along the Apalachicola River) and the southwestern Appalachian Mountains, where it would have lived in warmer times. "Might this ancient Torreya actually have been growing as a wild, native tree when the early white settlers built their first homes there?" asks Connie.

       During her visit to the Columbus Tree, Connie collected several branchlets in order to try to produce clones from this ancient tree. We began by cutting them into about 20 smaller pieces to separately root. The micropropagation method we're using is designed to root the terminal shoots of the cuttings, as opposed to creating thousands of plants from a single needle. By using only the 'terminal' shoots, we should be able to propagate individual seedlings that grow upright, instead of the traditional spreading deformity that characterizes most traditionally rooted cuttings.

    We look forward to distributing the rooted clones among our existing out-plantings, aiming to increase genetic diversity of populations that we hope will begin reproducing in the decades ahead.

            Old Torreya in Columbus GA

    February 26, 2009 Fred C Fussell sent this email to Torreya Guardian Connie Barlow:

    At the very moment that we returned home today from a weekend visit to see our kids in Oxford, MS, we spotted a stranger on our front porch -- one with Lafayette County, Mississippi, (Oxford) license plates on his car -- knocking on our front door. It turned out to be Edward Croom, Jr., PhD., who was here hoping to photograph our Torreya. Ed had no clue that you and I had corresponded about the tree during the past two weeks. He was actually on his way to the Atlanta Botanical Garden to see other examples of Torreya and made a side trip to Columbus.

    As it happens, Ed and I have many, many other common interests and connections. However, he had seen and documented our tree and two others on our street in Columbus several years ago. Unfortunately, the other two were destroyed a few years ago. What a wild coincidence!



    Leigh Brooks emailed Torreya Guardians this correspondence from her colleague, Jerry Adams from Bainbridge GA, in May 2009: "Stopped by Columbus, Ga. the other day and two of the three torreya trees that grew on the river just south of downtown have been cut down. The remaining one is still living but very diseased. Next door neighbor said the house with the two trees changed hands about six years ago and they cut them down... I last saw the three trees in 2002 and of the two that got cut down, one was in really good shape. Mark Garland told me about the trees. He grew up in Columbus. Mark Garland is a respected botanist in Florida."

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