About Torreya taxifolia


Genus Torreya is a primitive member of the yew family (Taxaceae). Six species of this genus are known worldwide: 3 in China, one in Japan and Korea, one in California, and one in the Florida panhandle. The Florida species is by far the most imperiled and is the subject of our concern.

"Comparisons of rbcl chloroplast DNA sequences involving T. californica, T. grandis, T. jackii, T. nucifera, and T. taxifolia indicated that Florida torreya is very distinct from other species, and is most closely related to T. californica and T. grandis (Price 1999). In addition, the DNA sequences suggested that the closest generic relative is the Asian Amentotaxus." — "Torreya taxifolia 5-year review (by US Fish & Wildlife Service)

  
LEFT: A fleshy sarcotesta surrounds the single large seed of T. tax
RIGHT: Connie Barlow with STATE CHAMPION Torreya californica near Santa Cruz CA

Torreya taxifolia (often referred to as T. tax or Florida torreya) is an evergreen conifer tree historically found only along a 65 kilometer stretch of the Apalachicola River of northern Florida and the adjacent sliver of southern Georgia. It favors the cool and shady ravines, known as "steepheads," that dissect the high bluffs of the river's east shore. Despite its current extreme endemism, the species was once a prominent mid- and under-story member of its forest community, which includes an odd mix of northern and southern species: towering beech and hickory next to tall evergreen magnolia, and surrounded by stubby needle palm. Note: Click to learn more about the the unique steephead habitats, including the other cool-adapted plants that are now restricted to those locations, some of which are threatened or endangered. MORE INFORMATION available at USFS Torreya taxifolia page.

LEFT: "Historically native" range of Torreya taxifolia (along Apalachicola River), marked by orange.

RIGHT: Healthy growth on a young T. taxifolia, following "assisted migration" of this endangered conifer to the mountains of North Carolina.


   VIDEO: Site Visits to Florida's Endangered Torreya and Yew Trees

Connie Barlow presents 15 years of baseline photos and videos she recorded of Torreya taxifolia and Taxus floridana in their historically native range in Torreya State Park in northern Florida. Photos of spectacular California Torreya trees, recorded by Barlow in 2005, show the potential for Florida Torreya recovery efforts to strive for. Fred Bess shows (in 2014 video) 2 Asian conifers (Cephalotaxus and Cunninghamia) used in landscaping that are Torreya look-alikes. Paleoecological evidence that Florida's Torreya was "left behind" in its peak glacial refuge supports "assisted migration" actions.

63 minutes - assembled & published, January 2016


"A Pious Pilgrimage" by Botanist Asa Gray in 1875

      In the spring of 1875, distinguished Harvard botanist Asa Gray embarked upon a trip to the panhandle of Florida, to "make a pious pilgrimage to the secluded native haunts of that rarest of trees, the Torreya taxifolia". The trees observed by Gray grew up to a meter in circumference and were as much as 20 meters tall.


"A.W. Chapman's Torreya Experience, 1885

Torreya taxifolia "occupies a narrow strip of land extending along the east bank of the Apalachicola River from Chattahooche on the north to Alum Bluff on the south, a distance of about twenty miles, and forming a continuous forest, but in detached and often widely separated clumps or groves, generally mingled with, or overshadowed by, magnolia, oaks, and other native trees. . . It is a wild, hilly region, abounding in rocky cliffs and deep sandy ravines ("spring-heads") and unlike in scenery and vegettion any other part of the low country known to me. To these cliffs, and to the precipitous sides of the ravines, the tree appears to be exclusively confined; for it is never seen in the low ground along the river, nor on the elevated plateau east of it, nor, indeed, on level ground anywhere."

Online access to Chapman's report in the April 1885 Botanical Gazette

  

LEFT: Map published in 1885 of Torreya's native range, in report by A.W. Chapman


RIGHT: Map of 20th century range of Torreya taxifolia, from "Defining Indigenous Species: An Introduction" by Mark W. Schwartz, chapter in Assessment and Management of Plant Invasions, 1997.

  



The Strange Mix of Vegetation Along the Apalachicola River

  

LEFT: hickory trunk in front of evergreen magnolia canopy, with trunk of American Beech at center.

RIGHT: Several shrubby palm species beneath a large beech in Florida's Torreya State Park, along the Apalachicola River. The botanical mix in the "steephead ravines" in this park is a treasure because the same site served, just 18,000 years ago as a crucial "pocket reserve" in which the botanical richness of today's southern and central Appalachians took refuge at the peak of the last peak glacial advance.

Note: Mark Gelbart hypothesizes that Mastodons, rather than tortoises (or squirrels) were the dispersers of Torreya taxifolia during the Pleistocene. See also his blog contending that Torreya is missing its megafaunal disperser. In the latter blogpost, Gelbart draws from a 1978 book by Charles Wharton, The Natural Environments of Georgia, in which the Torreya's very limited habitat in Florida is described as "torreya ravines." Associated plants are listed: "The dominant trees in a torreya ravine are red maple, southern sugar maple, beech, magnolia, basswood, elm, torreya, and sabal palm. Most of these species have northern affinities and are more commonly found in Appalachian cove forests. Other plants found in torreya ravines also represent species of northern affinities such as strawberry bush, hydrangea, and redbud. Wharton found torreya growing with beech, sourwood, and plum in the Faceville Ravine on the Flint River."


Learn why T. tax is at the brink of EXTINCTION


EDITOR'S NOTE: This 1905 publication contains the first suggestion that Torreya's preferred habitat lies northward of its endemic Florida range.  Access online the entire report.

  

Note that in this 1905 report, the author posits that Torreya taxifolia "is associated with a remarkable and somewhat extensive group of northern mesophytic plants, and the conclusion is irresistible that Torreya is a northern plant of the most pronounced mesophytic tendencies, and to be associated with such forms as the beech-maple-hemlock forms of our northern woods, our most mosphytic type of association."

In 2013 AJ Bullard demonstrated on his Torreya taxifolia tree in Mt. Olive North Carolina that this species actually will produce both female cones (top branchlet) and male cones (middle branchlet) on a single individual. Lower left branchlet shows vegetative buds.

In an email to Lee Barnes on 9/29/16 Frank Callahan wrote of his mature Florida Torreya trees in Medford OR: "Both of these trees exhibit male and female 'flowers', which is unusual for this taxon."


 

   ABOVE LEFT: vegetative buds.

ABOVE RIGHT: male pollen-producing buds.
(photos by Fred Bess, spring 2016)

LEFT: The male structures release pollen sequentially over an extended period — which could be a crucial adaptation for this species that generally has only male or female structures per each tree. (photo by Clint Bancroft)


      FAR LEFT: Deer tick offers scale for the size of Torreya leaves, which show off their dangerously sharp points (27 May 2016).

LEFT: New-growth leaves are vulnerable until their tips harden. This specimen suffered total herbivory/dieback, but is putting forth a doublet growth from near its base (1 October 2016). The upper will swing into a vertical position, becoming the new main stem, and its twin will become the first lateral branch.

Photos by Daein Ballard, New Hampshire


    Lee Barnes, one of the founding Torreya Guardians (and a native North Carolinian), measures the growth of "Thoreau" T. taxifolia tree, four years after it was planted at Corneille Bryan Native Plant Garden, in Junaluska NC. (photo by Connie Barlow, May 2012). In spring of 2014, Lee rediscovered in his archives a paper he wrote for a graduate course in horticultural science in 1983. You can access a pdf of that paper: "Morphology of Torreya taxifolia".

In 2013, Torreya Guardians began trying to learn how best to encourage symbiotic fungi (mycorrhizae) to grow amidst Torreya's roots in our plantings, so Lee's 1083 observation is prescient: "Seedlings produce extensive root systems before much top growth. Also, numerous individuals have noted that Torreya spp. grow naturally slow. It has also been observed that many species with thick roots grow slowly unless inoculated with mycorrhizae. Currently, investigations are underway to determine if mycorrhizal inoculation will increase the growth rate of rooted cuttings and micropropagated plants." (p. 12)


    Genus Torreya in online Encyclopedia of Life

The Encyclopedia of Life online has a lot of photos of genus Torreya — especially the one Californian and several Asian native species. For example, the photo left of ripe seeds of California Torreya confirms that this sister species has the same seed shape and color as Torreya Guardians have documented of North Carolina plantings of the Florida Torreya. (If you click on the "original" link associated with each photo, you will sometimes find not only the original photo but detailed information on date and place.)


Click above for a 2-minute video of Torreya State Park in n. Florida.



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