Torreya taxifolia
90-year-old grove in Highlands North Carolina

3,300 feet elevation, south-facing gentle slope of Satulah Mountain
reports of site visits on 18 April 2015 and 11 August 2006

by Connie Barlow


NOTE: This site on private land in the Highlands NC area was reported to Torreya Guardians by Robert Zahner.

Bob Zahner's report of previous experience at this grove:

  • 7/11/06 / by Bob Zahner / Mature grove of Torreya trees from Florida in Highlands, NC
    "The local Torreya trees are on the old Harbison farm about two miles south of Highlands. Prof. Thomas Harbison made Highlands his home off and on from 1880 until he died in the 1930s. He was a field botanical collector for Harvard's Arnold Arboretum and for the herbaria at the University of North Carolina and at Vanderbilt's Biltmore Estate.He could have collected the Torreya seeds from the Florida source at any time about 1910 to 1920. There is no family record as to when the Highlands Torreya were planted, probably from seedlings he grew from seed. (He had a small commercial nursery here.) Harbison built his last house here in 1920, and the Torreya trees are located about 150 feet from the house. He may have planted them before the house was built, but probably not until shortly after. We will probably core one of the trees some day to determine its age.
        Anyway, they are beautiful, healthy trees, flowering and fruiting well every year that I've checked them. There are six trees, three male and three female. The largest stem is 16" in diameter, several are over 13" and two are smaller at about 7" and 8." The two tallest are well over 50 feet in height. The smaller are simply overtopped by the larger, for they all appear to be the same age. There are natural seedlings and saplings in the near vicinity. It appears that squirrels and other rodents consume most seed along with the fruits, but a few escape and germinate. The small Torreya grove is part of a hardwood forest of larger trees."

       "You probably know that the largest recorded Florida Torreya is located on a farm near Norlina, NC, listed in the current register of big trees with a huge stem diameter of nearly three and a half feet, but only 53 feet tall. I have a photo of this tree taken in 1939, and even then (67 years ago) it was over two feet in diameter, a beautiful tree."
        I also have the names of several people who have seen the Harbison trees, and are very interested in "re"-establishing Torreya here in the southern Appalachians. Anyhow, rewilding Torreya privately seems to be a good possibility, like the American chestnut projects being done through two private organizations, completely ignored by government agencies.

    Editor's note: Robert Zahner died one year after filing this report. His legacy of promoting ecological understanding and conservation of southern Appalachian forests carries forward.

  • Wikipedia link to Thomas Grant Harbison House begins:
    The Thomas Grant Harbison House is a historic house at 2930 Walhalla Road, just outside Highlands, North Carolina. The two-story wood frame house was built in 1921 for the botanist Thomas Grant Harbison (1862-1936), who was responsible for some of the surviving plantings, including a stand of the endangered Torreya taxifolia, on the extant 3.3-acre (1.3 ha) property. The house remained in the Harbison family until 1985. The house was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2008. Address: 2930 Walhalla Rd., Highlands NC 28741. 35° 01'45"N 83° 11'33"W

    Scroll to bottom for biographical information on Thomas Grant Harbison.


    PHOTO-ESSAY and VIDEO link of 2015 SITE VISIT

         

    18 APRIL 2015: Connie Barlow and Jack Johnston (above) video-documented and measured this precious grove, just south of Highlands NC. The grove is precious because (a) it contains 6 specimens of 90-year-old trees and (b) the property has been left to grow wild for decades, and thus it provides an unparalleled opportunity to study the natural growing characteristics of the species beneath a deciduous canopy and to learn its seed dispersal and establishment properties.

    Watch the 28-minute VIDEO made by Connie: "Florida Torreya to Highlands NC.

    The 6 originals have these diameters (DBH inches): 16.5, 14, 14, 10, 7, 5. The biggest sapling (descended from the grove) had DBH of 5.5

      

    ABOVE LEFT: Jack estimates the ground-laying torreya branch emerging from a grove tree as being 20-feet in length. We saw one other (8-foot) emerging ground branch and a lot of low, horizontal branches with healthy leaf structure emerging from trunks on all edges of the grove.

    ABOVE RIGHT: Seedlings and saplings ranging to a distance of 40 yards outward offer evidence of the "seed shadow" dispersal distance achieved by the only operative dispersers here: squirrels.


    PHOTO-ESSAY OF 2006 SITE VISIT

         

      

    ABOVE LEFT (flash): The 3 largest specimens at this site were all about the same size and all growing next to one another, roughly in a line. We presume that these are the survivors of the the original planting, which happened in the 1920s. Two of these 3 biggest specimens are visible here on either side of the man. The third is invisible in the background. Notice the large stump sprout stem growing out of the foreground big specimen. And notice the cluster of stump sprout stems growing out of the specimen in far left foreground. We presume this specimen germinated from a seed dropped by one of the 3 largest trees. Every stem and every green-leaved branch you can see in this photo is Torreya, and every one appeared very healthy.

    ABOVE RIGHT: Weather during our visit was dark and drizzly, 11 a.m. Here you can see the general wildness of the site. By the size of the young tuliptrees that have over-topped and now cast shade on even the oldest, tallest Torreya specimens, we estimate that this section of landscape has been untended for at least 20 years. A lower canopy branch of one of the original Torreya trees is visible as the dark-green horizontal branch at the top of the photo, right of center. The trunks of the original 3 trees are beyond the right edge of this photo. Two very young white pines (seen as fuzzy blurs) are volunteers near foreground, center and right of center.

    LEFT (flash): Among the 5 explorers on this trip were Jeff Zahner (left), horticulturalist and naturalist resident of Highlands NC; Connie Barlow (center), Torreya Guardian and author of the article advocating assisted migration for Torreya taxifolia; and Lee Barnes (right), botanist and landscape consultant, resident of Waynesville NC, and heading up the Torreya Guardians program of distributing seed collected at the Biltmore Gardens grove of T. tax. All the foliage behind them, as well as the low branch hanging between them, is from the oldest individuals of Torreya at this site.


      

    ABOVE: Note the lushness of the foliage on this sample branch of an original planting, and also the view up the tree trunk.


         

         

    ABOVE: These mature Torreya trees are all healthy, and yet they all bear healthy stump/root sprouts — which may be the reason this genus has more than a hundred million years of survival. If anything destroys the main stem, one or more stump sprouts are instantly ready to take over.


      

    LEFT (flash): This is a telephoto view upward at the lowest-hanging seed at the Highlands site. We counted only 5 visible seeds; we did not have binoculars to see the sunny tree-tops, so there were likely more.


    4 PHOTOS BELOW (flash): Examples of self-propagated SEEDLINGS at the Highlands site. Since some seedlings were considerably distant from the branch tips of seeding adult specimens, and some even a bit uphill, we postulate that squirrels dispersed the seeds.


      

      

      

    LEFT (flash): Foreground man is touching the foliage of a foot-tall seedling. The outer canopy of parent plants are about 30 feet to left (and downslope), beyond the photo field of view. Notice paved road behind and downhill from this site.


      

      

    ABOVE LEFT: Lee Barnes reaching to near the top of a sapling growing in shade.

    ABOVE RIGHT: View directly up from the sapling pictured at left. Notice the large degree of shade under which this sapling is growing. It is located close to the outer canopy of the original specimens on the side directly opposite from the seedlings shown in previous photos.

    LEFT (flash): An intermediate age tree on the same side of the original specimens as big photo above with man in blue shirt. It is also growing in a rather shady spot.


      

      

    ABOVE LEFT: A remarkable young tree growing in dense deciduous shade, very near an old maple. The upper part of it is visible as the dark green foliage in the very center of the photo.

    ABOVE RIGHT (flash): The base of the young tree shown in photo to left. Notice how well it grows on the steep bank edge, reminiscent of the wild California Torreya growing successfully on very steep slopes.

    LEFT: The view upward through the outer foliage of the young tree shown in previous two photos. Perhaps it is growing so well because the dense shade above it is deciduous, so the tree might do most of its growing post-leaf-fall in the autumn and prior to full leafing out in the spring. Nonetheless, based on experience in California, it would be highly unlikely for this tree (if female) to bear fruit so long as the maple is alive.


    Narrative of the "grounds" section of the document certifying this site on the NATIONAL HISTORIC REGISTER:

    The woodland character of the Harbison House grounds, with natural plant, leaf, and pine needle cover and no mown grass, dates to ca. 1921 when Mr. Harbison and his family occupied their newly-built house. According to local tradition, the Harbison House occupies the site of the former Martha Teague house. Given the agreeableness of the site, the protection of Satulah Mountain at its back, and the splendid expansive views from the house's two-tier south porch over the landscape of three states, the siting of the Harbison House has few equals in Highlands. While the location of the house might be pre-ordained, Mr. Harbison's decision to maintain the woodland character of his grounds was conscious and in sympathy with his long career as a botanist.
        The historic grounds of the Harbison House reflect three periods. The first, dating from ca. 1921 until Mr. Harbison's death in 1936, is associated with his work as a botanist. Some significant portion of the open aged grove of hemlock, white pine, and oak trees that forms the towering canopy of the property date to his years here. The group of six Torreya taxifolia that stands to the east/southeast of the house is known to have been planted by Mr. Harbison. These mid-height trees are native to Florida and are listed on the Federal Endangered Species List. The trees were probably gathered by Mr. Harbison on one of his collecting expeditions for the Arnold Arboretum. This group and some dozen or so on the Biltmore Estate in the Azalea Garden, which probably all (save perhaps one) date to a late 1930s planting by Chauncey Beadle, are the only examples in Western North Carolina. They continue to attract visits by professional botanists at Clemson University and others in the field on a periodic basis. The informal, natural understory of native dogwoods, mountain laurel and rhododendrons growing alone and in clusters throughout the acreage, and the introduced azaleas date in some part to the 1920s and 1930s and, as is likely, some are the natural offspring of plants here in Mr. Harbison's day. (
    full text here)

    Here is a portion of the Thomas Grant Harbison biography section of the National Historic Register document online:

       In 1897 Thomas Grant Harbison began his professional career as a botanist that continued through the remainder of his life. From 1897 to 1903 he was employed as a plant collector and botanist for the Biltmore Herbarium, developed as a part of the large horticultural and agricultural operations carried out for George Washington Vanderbilt. From 1905 to 1926 Mr. Harbison traveled throughout the American South and Southwest as a plant collector for the Arnold Arboretum under the direction of Dr. Charles Sprague Sargent (1841-1927). His work was critical to Dr. Sargent's production of the second edition of his landmark Manual of the Trees of North America published in 1922. The third and final stage in Mr. Harbison's career as a botanist followed on the death of his long-time friend and colleague, William Willard Ashe, in 1932. Mr. Harbison cooperated with Mrs. Ashe and Dr. William Chambers Coker, founder of the University Herbarium at the University of North Carolina and a professor of botany, to secure the important Ashe Herbarium for the University Herbarium. In 1934 Mr. Harbison was appointed curator of the University Herbarium and died in that post on 12 January 1936.

        The Harbison House remained a residence of his family until ca. 1985, and in the ownership of the family until January 2000, when it was acquired and restored by the present owners. Mr. Harbison's residence is one carrier of his memory, and his important roles as a botanist and educator are honored in other ways.
        Today, eight plants carry Mr. Harbison's name, including Crataegus harbisonii, which was named for him by Chauncey Beadle and published in Dr. Sargent's first, 1905 edition of his Manual of the Trees of North America. In fall 2003 a North Carolina Highway Historical Marker was erected in Highlands honoring his work as a botanist and educator. . . . Mr. Harbison came to the estate in 1897 as a plant collector and, as such, traveled through much of the United States.
    "The spring and early summer of 1898 he spent in studying and making collections of the plants in the eastern part of our state; the late summer and fall he spent in similar work in the Rockies, the Cascades, and the western Coast Ranges. He continued in such work, studying and collecting plants, mostly in our southern states, until the discontinuance of the herbarium at Biltmore in 1903" (Journal of the Elisha Mitchell Society, 52 /142).
    During this period Mr. Harbison contributed two articles to the Biltmore Botanical Studies, another casualty of retrenchment that appeared only in 1901-1902 as two numbers of volume one. For all or a portion of his employment at Biltmore, Mr. Harbison had Frank E. Boynton, another Highlands resident, as a colleague in his work.
          . . . The matter of when Thomas Grant Harbison first met Charles Sprague Sargent, the founding director of the Arnold Arboretum at Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, and the foremost authority on trees in late-nineteenth and early twentieth-century America, remains to be confirmed. However, he would have known of Dr. Sargent, his study of trees, and the development of the Arnold Arboretum, by the early 1880s, before he came to Highlands in spring 1886 and then returned that summer. In Highlands he would have learned of Dr. Sargent's first (known) visit to the Highlands area, and possibly the resort itself, in September 1885 from Frank E. Boynton, who served as a guide for the botanist. On that visit Mr. Boynton and Dr. Sargent rediscovered Shortia galacifolia growing "on the southern slopes of the Blue Ridge near the head waters of the Keowee river," along the North Carolina/South Carolina border. Whether the find was made in today's Transylvania County, North Carolina, or Oconee County, South Carolina, is unclear. Mr. Boynton found the famed "Oconee Bells" in fall 1886 "growing in great abundance in another cove on the same slope . . . called Bear Camp" in the region where the plant was discovered by Andre Michaux in 1787 (The Highlander, 12 November 1886).
        Frank Boynton, a Highlands resident, was one link between the two men, Messrs. Harbison and Sargent. The other was Chauncey Delos Beadle, his supervisor in the work for the Biltmore Herbarium. Mr. Beadle was a professional colleague of Dr. Sargent's, and both were greatly interested in the species Crataegus and both had substantial plantings of hawthorns at Biltmore and the Arnold Arboretum, respectively, dating from about the turn of the twentieth century (Sutton, 288-89). In 1905, when Dr. Sargent's Manual of the Trees of North America (Exclusive of Mexico) was published, he included a hawthorn named by Mr. Beadle for Mr. Harbison, Crataegus Harbisoni (sic). Apparently this was the first of at least eight known species named for Mr. Harbison.
        Thomas Grant Harbison devoted one of the eight pages of his "Auto-Biographical Sketch" to his work for Dr. Sargent and the Arnold Arboretum.
    "This arboretum aims to grow every species of tree and shrub in the world that will endure that climate. This is a formidable undertaking and will take time and much money. Mr. Vanderbilt volunteered to donate the service of his collectors in the South. In this way I became well acquainted with Sargent. When we had finished our work for Mr. Vanderbilt and I was about to take up educational work again, Sargent took me to task for thinking of abandoning a work for which there was far too few trained men for a work that had plenty of applicants. He persuaded me to continue botanical work and devote my time to trees and shrubs. I did my first work for him in 1905 and the last in 1926. My task was to find all unknown and little known trees and thrubs (sic) and also to trace the distribution of all the known ones. I was to get seeds and cuttings of everything in the southern states not already growing in the arboretum, but my chief work was to study critically every species, keeping in mind the revision of his manual of trees of North America. I visited all parts of the South, and made many corrections and additions for his Manual. Sargent is supposed to be the highest authority on trees in the world. My quarter of a century closely connected with him, including trips with him in the woods I should think, in a measure at least, make up for a term I missed at the University under some professor who learned mostly from books."
    . . . He was a pioneer in securing national forests for the western part of North Carolina, turned over much of his own land to the government at a very low rate and by his advocacy and example persuaded his neighbors to do the same. . . Though a lover of timber trees, he also knew and loved all humbler plants too and fully realized their cultural value. He was an early advocate for a great National park in the North Carolina mountains and was an early contributor and played a part in securing the cooperation of the mountain people in what has resulted in the Smoky Mountain National Park.

    Note: The 8 plants named after Thomas Grant Harbison are: Crataegus harbisonii, Salix harbisonni, Viburnum cassinoides var. harbisonii, Quercus harbisonnii, Aesculus harbisonni, Astragalus harbisonii, Vaccinum neglectum var. harbisonnii, and Verbena harbisonni.


  • March 27, 2010 / Comment by Jeff Zahner, horticulturalist, Cashiers/Highlands NC / Torreya taxifolia doing well

    "I just received a link to the Bob Zahner tree [at the Waynesville NC Torreya site planted in 2008] from my mom. It's such a pretty tree and it made me happy. I wanted to thank you for all you are doing to help the Torreya and wish you well for the coming Spring — it's finally here! Here at 4000 ft our Torreya are healthy and were missed by the ice-laden pine branches crashing around them. The littlest ones were completely covered with snow for five weeks straight but seem to be fine." [Note: Jeff Zahner runs a plant nursery in Cashiers and has young Torreya taxifolia on his property.]


  • April 25, 2016 / Comment by Dan Pittillo, former botanist at Western Carolina University, Cullowhee NC /

    [clip of email response to Connie Barlow:] "Hello Connie, I've just returned this weekend from the 66th annual Wildflower Pilgrimage in the Smokies. Pardon my delay in responding to your question on Torreya. My only knowledge of T. taxifolia was my specimen collection for Western Carolina Univ. Herbarium and observation of the trees planted by Ravenel south of Highlands. That and the class trips I took with the late Angus Gholson along the Apalachicola River in north Florida-Georgia border in Chattahoochee. A.J. Bullard might have known that I knew of the Ravenel trees. But those are the only ones I know of besides young transplants at Corneille Bryon Native Plant Garden in Lake Junaluska and a few other places.

    If you have not yet seen Alan Weakley's Southeast Flora online, you might wish to download the continuing updated site at UNC. (See the below copy from his web site.) Best wishes with your endeavor to find more trees that have been planted north of the original populations.

    From Weakley, p. 121: Torreya Arnott 1838 (Torreya, Stinking Cedar) The genus consists of 6-7 species, trees, of temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere – 1 in FL and adjacent GA, 1 in CA, 1 in Japan, and 4 in c. and s. China and adjacent Burma (Price 1990). References: Hils in FNA (1993b); Page in Kramer & Green (1990). Torreya taxifolia Arnott, Florida Torreya. Moist ravines and bluffs, sometimes planted well outside its native range as an ornamental, and also rarely established near plantings. An endangered endemic of ravines along the Apalachicola River in Panhandle FL and sw. GA. Pittillo and Brown (1988) report that "young saplings [are] established downslope and beneath transplanted trees south of Highlands [Macon County, NC]." Godfrey (1988) reports that the national champion Florida Torreya is in Warren County, NC, with "a near-basal circumference of 9 feet, a spread of 52 feet, and a height of 60 feet. It is estimated that it may have been planted there about 1830". The tree suffers from a canker disease caused by Fusarium torreyae (Aoki et al. 2013). [= FNA, K, WH3; = Tumion taxifolium (Arnott) Greene – S]


  • A Franklinia Heritage Tree is in the front of the Peggy Crosby Center at 348 South Fifth Street in Highlands.

  • Could Florida Torreya Take the Place of Eastern Hemlock? This is a proposal posted as a photo-rich essay in April 2015 by Torreya Guardian Connie Barlow. It features the now-wild quality of the 90-year-old Highlands Torreya Grove as a prime site to study for similarities to the physiology and ecological functions of Torreya taxifolia


       "Magnolia grandiflora L. Range Expansion: A Case Study in a North Carolina Piedmont Forest, by Jennifer A. Gruhn and Peter S. White, 2011, Southeastern Naturalist, offers a useful analogy for how we see Florida Torreya becoming "naturalized" to North Carolina — evident in the grove of elder planted trees having naturally given rise to seedlings and saplings in its vicinity.

    While unintentional, the natural dispersal and establishment of Southern Magnolia beyond its planting in the arboretum at Chapel Hill, is a fine example of poleward "assisted migration" of a southerly native species in this time of rapid climate change.


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