Efforts to Save Torreya taxifolia

by Connie Barlow, founder of Torreya Guardians
(updated March 2019)

OVERVIEW OF THE PROGRAMS: This website (Torreya Guardians) was initiated in 2005, 19 years after the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service had established a recovery plan for Florida Torreya, which had been designated "endangered" in the USA in 1984. The various programs have distinct advantages and constraints, summarized (by Connie Barlow), with excerpts and links.

1. OFFICIAL PROGRAM - U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (initiated in 1984)

2. INDEPENDENT CITIZEN PROGRAM - Torreya Guardians (initiated in 2005)

3. FLORIDA NATIVE PLANT SOCIETY SUBGROUP - Torreya Keepers (initiated 2018)

IUCN Redlist Endangered Species

IUCN "Conservation Actions" extract for this Critically Endangered species:

CONSERVATION ACTIONS: Torreya taxifolia has been the focus of extensive conservation interventions. The majority of its range lies within protected areas. Regular census' are carried out to monitor the state of the remaining trees. An ex-situ programme was initiated in the 1980s and clonal collections have since been established in several areas away from its native habitat. Some reintroduction work has been attempted within its natural range but this has not been successful to date. Various research programmes have been initiated to identify the causal agent of its decline: these are ongoing. T. taxifolia was listed as federally Endangered by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1984. A recovery plan was formulated in 1986 and has recently been reviewed and updated (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2010).

1. OFFICIAL PROGRAM: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
initiated 1984

The prime advantage of the official recovery program is that it is authorized to work directly with Torreya specimens growing naturally within the historically native range. Professional collaborations have been established with governmental institutions in Florida and Georgia, as well as with botanical gardens and universities in those and other states. The biggest constraint has been that the recovery plan (1986, updated in 2010) has not been written or interpreted in ways that include experimentation with "assisted migration" into natural forested habitats northward of the northernmost region of Georgia. While "assisted migration" has from the outset been a controversial topic among professional conservation biologists, a formidable obstacle for U.S. national (and likely state) governmental agencies is that mention of past and ongoing anthropogenic climate change as a reason for undertaking assisted migration propels management decisions into a highly contested political arena. Online resources of the governmental agency and participating institutions:

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Florida Torreya webpage
Announcement in Federal Register of 5-year Status Review initiated (6 August 2018)
• USF&WS Data Table: Record of Actions (comments column supplies the most detailed project reports)
• USF&WS Recovery Plan (2010, official)
• USF&WS 1986 original recovery plan


Center for Plant Conservation Torreya taxifolia page - list of current research and actions by affiliated botanical gardens (bottom of page gives stats on ex situ collections, including 5,000 seeds harvested in 2016)
State Botanical Garden of Georgia
"The Fall of the Torreya and What Is Being Done To Save It" - 2019 audio interview of Jennifer Ceska, State Botanical Garden of Georgia
Atlanta Botanical Garden Torreya page on Ecological Restoration Alliance of Botanic Gardens website (latest update 31 Jan 2019)
"Conservation Outlook For Florida’s Threatened, Endangered, and At-risk Species" (p. 29 is Florida Torreya), USF&WS Magazine, September 2015.
Update on the Recovery of T. taxifolia at the Atlanta Botanical Garden (2003)
Atlanta Botanical Garden looking to plant 1,600 endangered tree seedlings (2017)
Atlanta Botanical Garden April 2019 "President's Message" on Torreya taxifolia
Atlanta Botanical Garden opens Southeastern Center for Conservation this summer, Atlanta Journal-Constitution (2019)
1998 collaborative report: Smith Garden and Atlanta Botanical Garden
Florida torreya entry (p. 440) in Field Guide to the Rare Plants of Georgia (by Linda Chafin, 2007)
Photos: ABG onsite propagation (2007)
Record of Branchlet Rooting at Smith College (1993)
Torreya Symposium (March 2018)

NOTE ON OFFICIAL EX SITU PLANTINGS - Initially, ex situ plantings focused on same-latitude sites, notably:
Maclay Gardens / State Park/ Tallahassee, FL - The 1986 Recovery Plan notes trees at this location. It appears these trees had the blight or contracted it shortly after planting. Trees are still growing onsite. Original trees were planted at this site in the 1930s and they were being treated for disease since 1955.

Harrison Experimental Forest / US Forest Service / Saucier, MS - Three trees from a population there were used in a photosynthetic experiment. Torreya Guardian Paul Camire queried by email in 2018 and learned that several specimens have died and the 15 remaining trees (sickly, 5ft and under in size) are struggling and infected with the blight. Editor's note: This location is only about 20 miles inland of the Gulf Coast, so rampant disease is not unexpected.

In the 21st century, official outplantings have shifted to northern Georgia: Smithgall Woods, Vogel State Park, and a location in Blairsville. More detail on the Smithgall Woods State Park Torreya Seed Orchard in northern Georgia can be found in the "Comments" column of this USF&WS matrix of recovery actions: Record of Actions. See excerpts below:
Georgia: The ABG and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources outplanted 19 individuals of T. taxifolia at the Smithgall Woods in White County in north Georgia. The purpose of the Smithgall Woods collection and two additional off-site plantings (Blairesville, GA and Vogel State Park) were to establish safeguarding populations of Torreya to conserve material that had been propagated at the ABG in backup collections at more than one location. The material planted at Smithgall Woods was propagated from all Georgia source population material (Army Corps. Of Engineers, site at Woodruff Dam, Lake Seminole, in Georgia). The trees have grown quite large and are now reproductively mature producing male and female cones annually. Most of the plants were placed in full sun and they are quite healthy. The trees at Vogel State park are smaller than those at Smithgall Woods and have not yet reached reproductive maturity.
The 2010 Recovery Plan Update (p. 9) documented seed production at Smithgall Woods:
The Atlanta Botanical Garden (ABG) and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources outplanted 19 individuals of T. taxifolia at the Smithgall Woods in White County in north Georgia. The purpose of the Smithgall Woods collection and two additional offsite plantings (Blairesville, GA and Vogel State Park) were to establish safeguarding populations of Torreya to conserve material that had been propagated at the ABG in backup collections at more than one location (CruseSanders 2010, pers. comm.). The material planted at Smithgall Woods was propagated from all Georgia source population material (Army Corps. of Engineers, site at Woodruff Dam, Lake Seminole, in Georgia). The trees have grown quite large and are now reproductively mature producing male and female cones annually. Most of the plants were placed in full sun and they are quite healthy. Major threats to the trees at this location are lawn management (weed wackers) and fire ants. The trees at Vogel State park are smaller than those at Smithgall Woods and have not yet reached reproductive maturity (Cruse-Sanders 2010, pers. comm.).
Atlanta Botanical Garden January 2019 update, published online, "Recovery of the Florida Torreya - one of the rarest conifers in the world," Ecological Restoration Alliance of Botanic Gardens (one page)
EXCERPT: ... In 1990, Atlanta Botanical Garden received 155 clones of T. taxifolia propagated from the remaining natural population by Arnold Arboretum and the Center for Plant Conservation. This material has been safeguarded at the Atlanta Botanical Garden since that time, and propagation efforts have increased the collection to include almost 1,000 plants, including nearly 500 distinct vegetative clones from the wild. One of the limiting factors to ex situ conservation of this species is the inability to use conventional seed storage techniques for preserving germplasm. Torreya taxifolia produces recalcitrant wet seeds that cannot be dried for storage in freezers. Therefore, until recently the only way to maintain ex situ germplasm was through living collections. In collaboration with Georgia Institute of Technology, a somatic embryogenesis tissue culture system was developed to initiate cultures, produce somatic seedlings and cryogenically store cultures of T. taxifolia. PHOTO CAPTION: Torreya taxifiolia seed orchard (a collaborative project between ABG & UGA) - This female tree was grown from lateral cuttings and, along with 20 others, was planted in 2000. Nearly 5,000 fruit were harvested in 2016.
Atlanta Botanical Garden June 2019 Update, published online, "Atlanta Botanical Garden opens Southeastern Center for Conservation this summer".
EXCERPTS PERTAINING TO FLORIDA TORREYA: ... This summer the garden opens its Southeastern Center for Conservation, a $7 million two-story building adjacent to the Fuqua Orchid Center. It was funded through the successful $53 million Nourish and Flourish fundraising campaign, which included $40 million for capital improvements and $13 million for the endowment. The new center will serve as a home for the garden's conservation, education, and experimentation. The building includes a 3,800-square-foot research facility with a molecular lab that lets scientists examine genetic material at the nucleotide level. The cold-storage seed bank is augmented by cryogenic coolers that can preserve the embryos of the Torreya trees as they try to determine why the trees die in the wild before they can become adults.
    ... They also feel the pain when a natural disaster spoils plans. The garden had transplanted 700 Torreya trees to Torreya State Park in Florida, with noted Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson, 88, as a guest of honor. Then, Hurricane Michael destroyed the entire stand, dumping hardwoods on top of little saplings. "It can be really discouraging," said Carter. But even if they're not successful now, they retain hope for future prospects, she said. "One thing we're doing is keeping individual genetic material alive," said Carter. "In the future, we hope there is something to be learned from holding on to these plants."

Editor's Note: Two law review articles posit that the existing Endangered Species Act and regulations would allow officials to move ahead with "assisted migration" with no need for modification. They are:

"Biodiversity on the Brink: The Role of 'Assisted Migration' in Managing Endangered Species Threatened with Rising Seas", by Jaclyn Lopez, Harvard Environmental Law Review, 2015.

"Endangered Species Act to the Rescue? Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation Under the ESA", by Olivia Bensinger, NYU Environmental Law Journal 2017.

initiated 2005

This program was initiated by Connie Barlow and Paul S. Martin in 2004 after informal consultations confirmed that neither governmental staff nor various experts were willing to join them in publicly advocating for initiation of "assisted migration" experiments for Florida Torreya. Their advocacy was in the form of a co-authored proposal published in Wild Earth journal: "Bring Torreya taxifolia North — Now".

Action was initiated by Lee Barnes in legally acquiring seeds and then distributing those seeds to various botanical gardens and landowner volunteers. Biltmore Gardens (near Asheville, NC) became the first seed donor for assisted migration experiments. Its grove of Florida Torreya had been planted in 1939 and usually produced seeds every other year. Biltmore donations to Torreya Guardians began in 2005, with 110 seeds, followed by 200 in 2007 and 300 in 2009. (Details are available at History of Torreya Guardians).

Jack Johnston, beginning in 2007, contributed crucial skills in legal seed sourcing, propagation advice, and acquiring the potted seedlings deployed in the 2008 "rewilding" of Florida Torreya into wild, regrowth forest sites on private lands near Waynesville, NC.

ADVANTAGES OF CITIZEN INITIATIVES: Because the Endangered Species Act expressly made an exception for seed and branchlet harvesting from endangered plants already established in botanical or landscape plantings prior to listing (and from any later generations of specimens outside of the native habitat locales), our citizen group of Torreya Guardians is not required to conform to actions approved in the official Recovery Plan. Overall, we have pretty much the same freedom and flexibility that nurseries and landscapers enjoy in their choices of what and where to plant. As well, those of us who are motivated to plant species for adaptation and anticipation of rapid anthropogenic climate change are not held back by political hesitancy toward accepting climate change as real. Crucially, too, because no research funds are invested in our plantings and we have no career push to publish quickly, we have the opportunity to risk "failure to thrive" — thus enabling us to test northward limits and a broad range of habitat types (in our quest to delineate the very best). As Connie Barlow mentions in a 2015 video report: "Researchers want to learn before they act, while activists want to act in order to learn."

COMPILATION OF CITIZEN PROJECTS, REPORTS, AND LEARNINGS: In addition to sampling links directly on the Torreya Guardians homepage, summaries and links of actions, ongoing learnings, and results are listed chronologically at these two key pages: Learnings and Reports by Volunteers.

CONSTRAINTS: We have no official recognition, are ineligible for research or management funding, and have limited or no access to the full genetic diversity of seeds and branch cuttings that the official program benefits from. Visit this webpage: History of Torreya Guardians.


  • To help save Torreya taxifolia from extinction.

  • To test the efficacy of assisted migration for this and other threatened plants that were "left behind" in their peak-glacial refuge.

  • To serve as a model for the kinds of geographic interventions that will be necessary for plants in a warming world.

  • To nurture citizen-professional collaborations and a high degree of volunteerism in service of biodiversity.


  • What We Have Learned

  • Seed-Planting Experiments

  • Historic Groves (northward thrival & noninvasiveness)

  • Annotated list of VIDEO reports

  • Legality: why our efforts are legal

  • Project Reports (reverse chronological)

  • History of Torreya Guardians

  • Endangerment (causes of)

  • Map of Torreya Guardian Project Sites

    In preparation for the March 2018 Torreya Symposium, sponsored by University of Florida and others, Connie Barlow produced a graphic to show the geographic extent of private landowners and botanical gardens that have received seeds donated by Torreya Guardians, as well as the map of sites where we have documented seed production.

    Access map caption, which includes a list of the major botanical gardens we collaborate with and a locales and descriptions of each of the documented sites of seed production.

    Access photo-rich webpages of our most successful plantings, state by state:

    North CarolinaTennesseeOhioGeorgiaFloridaMichiganNew Hampshire

    Volunteer Torreya Guardians

       CONNIE BARLOW: The final 10 minutes of an hour-long VIDEO REPORT in 2015 summarizes 4 primary types of EXPERIMENTS our group is undertaking: (1) planting and nurturing full-sun "orchards" aimed at maximizing early growth and seed production; (2) exploring for northern range limits where Torreya can survive and/or thrive in today's climate; (3) discerning habitat preferences at various latitudes; and (4) searching for sites and modes of planting that require the least amount of post-planting intervention for success.

    Torreya Guardian volunteers with experimental experience:

    • ORCHARD PLANTING (full sun) - Jack Johnston (GA), Russ Regnery (NC); Lamar Marshall (NC)

    • ROOTING BRANCHLETS - Clint Bancroft (TN); Jack Johnston (GA); Jeff Morris (NC)

    • RAPID SEED PRODUCTION: Jeff Morris (NC); Fred Bess (OH)

    • NORTHERN RANGE LIMITS - Fred Bess (OH); Bob Miller (OH); Dawes Arboretum (OH); Daein Ballard (NH)
         Liana May (MI), Paul Camire (MI)

    • HABITAT PREFERENCES - Connie Barlow (itinerant); Lee Barnes (NC)

    • FREE PLANTING (least intervention) - SUMMARY WEBPAGE ON FREE-PLANTING seeds directly into forests

    Nelson Stover (NC); Chris Anderson (TN); Chris Larson (FL); Russ Regnery (NC); Connie Barlow
    • DOCUMENTING SITES OF MATURE TREES - "Historic Groves" summary webpage
    Harbison House, Highlands NC - Jack Johnston, Clint Bancroft, Lee Barnes, and Connie Barlow
    Biltmore Gardens, Asheville NC - Lee Barnes and Connie Barlow
    Clinton, NC - Connie Barlow and Jeff Morris
    Columbus, GA - Clint Bancroft, Jack Johnston, Connie Barlow
    Madison, FL - Clint Bancroft
    Caroline Dormon Nature Preserve, LA - Clint Bancroft and Connie Barlow
    Henry Foundation, Gladwine PA - Paul Camire


    Click above for three magazine articles written about Torreya Guardians "assisted migration" and "rewilding" actions.

    initiated 2018

    • Extracts from the "About Us" page of the Torreya Keepers website:
    TorreyaKeepers is a project of the Florida Native Plant Society and was started by local landowners and concerned citizens working to save the Florida Torreya (Torreya taxifolia), which has become one of the rarest and most imperiled trees in the world. We work closely with recovery plan partner organizations such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Atlanta Botanical Garden, University of Florida, Torreya State Park and others. Our primary focus is on working with private landowners to document trees, assist Atlanta Botanical Garden in preserving genetic lines, and assist landowners with management.

    The purpose of TorreyaKeepers is to assist in recovery of the Florida Torreya tree in its native range by conducting citizen science and outreach to private landowners in support of the federal recovery plan and to provide local support to efforts for recovery partners. Our hope is that one day blight-resistant Torreya trees can be re-introduced into the native habitat, restoring the uniqueness of the Apalachicola bluffs and ravines and the tree's namesake park, Torreya State Park.

    • Extracts from the FNPS Executive Committee Meeting Minutes of 25 September 2018:
    Torreya Keepers Project

    a. This is a request for funding from Leigh Brooks for the TorreyaKeepers project. This project is intended to last for two years, possibly longer depending on outstanding needs. Leigh provided the proposed budget for the 2 years. Funding will cover capital expenditures, salaries, workshops, materials, etc. The Executive Director has had numerous conversations with Leigh as well as Magnolia Chapter members who are participating in the project and Magnolia Chapter board members who voted to approve funds for the project as a "kick start" and to help defray costs that Leigh has been covering herself.

    b. The most important discussion topics were: 1) FNPS cannot fund the proposal as written because we do not have the funds (130K) nor can we support new staff positions, vehicles and equipment. 2) We seek clarification of what actually is being asked of FNPS – i.e. to fund the budget as proposed? To serve as the nonprofit home for future fundraising from other sources?

    After discussion it was decided that FNPS should request that the project remain within FNPS and not have the project to go somewhere else or into a new nonprofit organization. However, how to stay involved without being able to fund becomes the issue. Some things to consider are:

    i. Keeping and funding TorreyaKeepers as an FNPS project - FNPS would help raise funds and promote it as one of our conservation projects.
    ii. FNPS (via Leigh and other volunteers) would seek grants or contracts to support this work. An obvious source is the USFWS (as this is a Federally Endangered species). If funds are secured, the project would be a FNPS program, run as any other FNPS program, subject to overhead and support expenses.
    More discussion with Leigh and Magnolia Chapter is required and recommended. This item will remain on the FNPS BOD agenda and the Executive Committee is recommending that we meet with Leigh Brooks and the Magnolia Chapter before asking the Board of Directors to vote yes or no.

    • Extracts from Work Plan for TorreyaKeepers Project, 14 September 2018 (8 pages pdf downloaded from the FNPS forum):

    TorreyaKeepers formed as an outgrowth of the Florida Torreya Tree of Life conference in March 2018 to aid in the recovery of Torreya taxifolia, a critically endangered species. Dr. Jason Smith (University of Florida), conference organizer and researcher of Torreya’s fungal pathogen, noted that trees appear to be perishing more quickly at present. With no known cure or treatment, time is of the essence to locate remaining trees. Since the March impetus, TorreyaKeepers has been undergoing program development. The group has begun mapping locations and collecting basic data on wild trees to support federal recovery plan tasks and the work of recovery partners. Citizen scientist volunteers have been conducting one survey each week covering approximately 20 acres. At this pace, the group will cover 1,000 acres each year.

    TorreyaKeepers conducted an in-depth GIS analysis, with grant support from the Magnolia Chapter FNPS, to identify potential properties harboring Torreyas within the native range. Criteria: parcels within the watershed of the east side of the upper Apalachicola River with slope of 20 degrees or greater and 1 acre in size or larger. Parcels were consolidated by owner into properties. Results: 987 properties covering 29,052 acres. Current volunteer resources of the TorreyaKeepers are not adequate to the challenge in the little time remaining for the trees. Recovery partners have been consulted on the best strategies for property selection to meet data and tissue collection goals. Of utmost importance will be having a dedicated, funded position to continue TorreyaKeepers work and expand its reach. This proposal is for FNPS to serve as TorreyaKeepers’ fiscal sponsor to allow for a compatible non-profit platform for raising funds and making program disbursements.

    Goals: The overarching goal of the TorreyaKeepers program is to address recovery plan tasks associated with private lands.

    Article on Torreya Keepers by Leigh Brooks in 2019 issue of Palmetto, quarterly journal of the Native Plant Society (4 pages).

    • Torreya Keepers (Leigh Brooks) is quoted in the 3 October 2019 issue of Tampa Bay Times: "What Hurricane Michael did to the torreya tree".

    WWW www.TorreyaGuardians.org


    Annotated List of Papers/Reports Online re Assisted Migration