The Old Torreya in Norlina, NC

As of 2018, here is what we know of the Norlina Tree

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• The 1986 recovery plan for Torreya taxifolia (its first) contains this mention of the Norlina tree:

ROBERT ZAHNER: In an email to Connie Barlow July 2006, Zahner wrote,

   "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."

North Carolina's Champion Big Tree Database:



Lee Barnes returns to the Evans Property site (Waynesville, NC) November 2008. Here, by seedling "Loren Eiseley" he holds up a photo he took 20 years earlier of the then-biggest Torreya taxifolia tree: a female in Norlina, NC. She is "Grandma" to all but one (all but "Celia") of the 31 seedlings that were planted in NC July 2008. The 2 female trees and one male that parented the potted seedlings planted by Torreya Guardians July 2006 at the Waynesville and Junaluska sites were offspring of the Norlina tree. (In 2017 Lee reported that his last visit to the Norlina Tree was in 1983 or 1984.)

• LEE BARNES, email to Jeff Morris of 30 July 2007:

I've been to the Norlina Torreyas in mid-1980's- there was a very large torreya (notably a Champion so must be other records on girth/height/etc.) and many smaller trees that appeared to have been transplanted/moved around the landscape. Bill Alexander (; 828-225-6347) at Biltmore Gardens knows of the tree; his wife was a roommate with a woman who was "related" to the tree, possibly a daughter of the landowner. He can give you more info. As I remember, the tree was given to a NC Senator, but I cannot remember details of over twenty years ago! I remember the tree had numerous basal sprouts (many dozens in a clump) that would make good cutting material. I recommend dormant cuttings after a few hard frosts in the fall. Good luck on the hunt for cuttings.
• JEFF MORRIS, email to Lee Barnes of 30 July 2007:
Briefly, the Norlina site is in Granville County, near the Virginia line. I spent a whole day there, and scoured the town in search of a Torreya taxifolia. I even contacted the Agricultural Extension agent, and he knows of no such tree in or around Norlina. I would like to think the legend is true, but I tend to think that if there were once a T. Taxifolia, it has either been forgotten or removed by newer homeowners.

A. J. BULLARD wrote a Letter to the Editor of North Carolina Wildlife, reporting on the Florida Torreya he has gathered seeds from in Clinton NC. In Bullard's comment, he also mentions the Norlina Tree. The editor of North Carolina Wildlife reports:
"Mount Olive botanist A. J. Bullard called to inform us that some information was missing from our story "Rewilding a Native" by Sidney Cruze in the Aug 2009 issue. When we asked what was missing, Bullard blew our minds by revealing that there is another living Torreya taxifolia tree in North Carolina that is well over a century old. This tree was one of the two that were planted in Clinton NC in the 1850s, around the same time that it is estimated the state champion tree in Norlina was planted. A storm in the late 1990s knocked down one of the Clinton Torreyas, but the other survives today. Bullard also explained that the researchers had traced the Norlina and Clinton trees to a single source. Pomaria Nurseries, an antebellum outfit near Columbia, SC, sold a tremendous variety of native and exotic fruit trees, ornamental trees, shrubs and flowers during that era. Scientists made the connection because Osage orange trees were planted near both Torreya sites, and Pomaria sold both types of trees..."
Note: Connie Barlow has a vague recollection of A.J. mentioning to her in 2013 that on a recent visit to the Norlina tree he concluded that it had died — and that the likely cause was leakage from an underground gasoline tank from the nearby gas station. Connie also uncovered the below photo in her online list of torreya images that is titled "norlina-torreya" and dated 7 August 2008, but she has no idea who sent it to her.

New Champion Tree designated by American Forests in 2016. Finally, because the Norlina Tree is no longer listed on the Champion Tree National Register of American Forests, we can surmise that the Norlina Tree was officially declared dead by 2016 — the year that an old shrubby form of Torreya taxifolia (form derived from a rooted branchlet) was declared as the new national champion.

Likely, however, either the largest tree in the Highlands NC grove or the Columbus GA lone survivor (see below; both have been documented by Torreya Guardians) would exceed the Ohio tree's measurements. However, none of us have submitted those sightings.

November 2016 / Clint Bancroft / cuttings from and measurements of the biggest Florida Torreya

   Jack Johnston and I made a pilgrimage to Columbus (Georgia) 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 tree's circumference. At four feet from the ground it measures an impressive 80 inches!

(We were not able to locate the stump next door which was the remains of the second Torreya. There were a couple of stumps in the yard but they were rotting.)

Editor's note: Establishing the circumference is important because, following the death of the old Torreya in Norlina, NC, a Florida Torreya in an arboretum in Ohio had been listed as the species champion (here) — but the Ohio tree circumference is just 52 inches.


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