Torreya californica (California Nutmeg)

by Connie Barlow


   The Santa Cruz Mountains are home to the biggest Torreya trees in North America.

LEFT: Connie Barlow with STATE CHAMPION Torreya californica in 2005.

RIGHT: Jonathan Walton photographed this grove along a road above Los Gatos. He reports that the large one near the road is 72 inches in circumference. "They are growing on a rather dry site with poison oak, California bay (laurel), madrone, Douglas fir, and coast live oak. No redwoods in this area."

  


In May and June 2005, I, Connie Barlow, (webmaster of this site and proponent of "rewilding" the endangered Florida torreya to the Appalachian Mountains) visited 4 distinct regions in which the California species of genus Torreya grows in the wild. Two regions were in the foothills or western slope of the Sierras: (1) Sequoia National Park and (2) Yosemite National Park. The other two were in the Coast Range mountains that (3) border the northwest side of Napa Valley and (4) those just north of Santa Cruz.

I visited these sites with the goal of getting a sense of the habitat and life association preferences of the California torreya, with the hope that this will give me (and others, via photographs here) a better sense of what the mountain habitat preferences for the "Florida" species (Torreya taxifolia) might be, and hence where to attempt reintroductions to the north. The thesis is that T. tax (along with many other plants) migrated to Florida as the Ice Ages set in, but has been unsuccessful in this current interglacial in returning to the Appalachians from its "pocket refuge" in Florida. Its sudden failure to thrive and reproduce in its localized Florida habitat beginning in the 1950s supports this thesis, as does the fact that all other species of genus Torreya — in California, Korea, Japan, and China — live in mountain habitats. Click for our web page on rewilding / assisted migration for T. tax.

After visiting the California sites and discussing these observations with local people who joined me on some of the quests, I have expanded my sense of Florida Torreya's problems to include not only that it was "LEFT BEHIND" in a glacial refuge in a time of warming, but also that FIRE SUPPRESSION in that small refuge during the last century has also been detrimental. "Left behind" is thus the ultimate cause of Torreya taxifolia's endangerment, while soil acidification and canopy shading owing to fire suppression are the proximate causes of the tree's susceptibility to native pathogens and its inability to reproduce. I thus now also agree with Torreya expert Mark Schwartz about proximate causes of Florida torreya's problems. (Click here for his article opposing assisted migration for Florida torreya.)

However, owing to the minuscule size of the Florida refuge, and the co-presence of endangered yew and herbs and a genotypically distinct (and thus precious) population of beech trees, firing the slopes on which Florida Torreya barely lingers is not an option (though firing the pine uplands that drain into Torreya habitat may be helpful and is underway.)

My hypothesis as I began my California quest for Torreya was that direct access to mountains is the key reason that the California, Japanese, Korean, and Chinese species of Torreya are not endangered. I found that California torreya is indeed "rare, though locally abundant," as reported in the literature. I believe it is "locally abundant" because it has been able to altitudinally compensate for rises in temperature during this interglacial. Its large seed, however, may be the reason that it is "rare". A large seed cannot waft on a breeze from one favorable habitat to the next. Rather, Torreya depends on squirrels to distribute its seed and thus to carry out the shifts in range (in contrast to other conifers, such as Douglas Fir and Redwood, whose seeds are easily airborne).

Possibly tortoises and other creatures that are now extinct played important roles distributing Torreya seeds in North America for millions of years prior to the end-Pleistocene extinctions, but today squirrels (and humans) are the only seed carriers who remain. (Click here for a published article in PDF that proposes this thesis, written by Connie Barlow and Paul Martin.)

Click to visit PHOTOGRAPHS and journal entries from Torreya field trips in:

  • Sequoia and Yosemite National Parks
  • Coast Range of north Napa Valley (Stevenson State Park)
  • Coast Range of northwest Napa Valley (Diamond Mountain Road)
  • Coast Range by Santa Cruz (Scotts Creek watershed)
  • Mt. Tamalpais State Park, Marin County
  • King Mountain Open Space, Larkspur (Marin County)
  • Mariposa County



  • SUMMARY OF RESULTS FROM THE 4 SITE VISITS
    of California Torreya
    that might guide choices for seed plantings of Florida Torreya
    in the central Appalachians and vicinity


    (Tentative) CONCLUSIONS AS OF JUNE 22, 2005 (by Connie Barlow)
    feedback requested


    1. SUNLIGHT REQUIRED FOR SEED PRODUCTION:
    Genus Torreya thrives in sun, but in cool habitats, such as one finds at high elevations (4000 feet in the Sierras) or on the steep slopes of Coast Range ravines. Torreya seems to require access to direct sunlight in order to produce its large seeds.

    2. STUMP SPROUTING AS A HOLDING PATTERN:
    Although Torreya thrives in full sun, it can't expect to have it: other species easily overtop a Torreya. Stump sprouting, followed by stem dieback without reproduction, and then another round of stump sprouting seems to be a HOLDING PATTERN by which established rootstock waits out conditions too shady to support seed development. When Torreya is growing as an understory tree beneath a much higher canopy, it is simply waiting for the canopy to open by windfall, fire, or (on steep slopes) landslides. Immediately following such an event, the influx of sun allows the established rootstock to send a stem quickly upward, and (in females) to begin producing viable seeds, which disperse locally. The new seedlings may have an opportunity to establish in sunlight before the habitat returns to the deep shade of high canopy conifers or evergreen oak and bay laurel.
        Repeated stump sprouting from established rootstock is all that remains of the once-locally abundant, though geographically limited, population of Torreya taxifolia in northern Florida. The easily observable difference between Florida Torreya resprouting and California Torreya reprouting is that the Florida species is plagued by stem cankers and by leaf browning that begins near the stem (not the branch tips). California Torreya growing in deep shade may assume a short and spindly growth form, but I saw no cankers on any trunk and only one instance of leaf death not associated with the natural shedding of old leaves as branches continue to lengthen. Indeed, when a Torreya tree is in full sun, its branches depart from the yew-like flatness and assume a bushiness that resembles Douglas Fir.

    3. COAST RANGE CONSTRAINTS AND OPPORTUNITIES:
    Genus Torreya is neither fast growing nor capable of producing a canopy as tall as that of competing trees that share its cool, Coast Range ravine habitats — notably Douglas Fir and Redwood. Thus, persistence of Torreya in the Coast Range seems to depend on Torreya's ability to linger in shady habitats (perhaps for centuries) as spindly, non-seeding trees that vegetatively replace their own dying stems by stump sprouting, until an overshading tree of a taller species happens to fall or a fire opens up the canopy. Acidification of soils and root rot may be the proximate causes of Torreya's failure in these situations to ever look like anything more than "saplings" (and droopy ones at that), and it is also the reason why stump sprouts can look quite healthy, because there is enough root to support very small growth forms, but not large ones. Thus, there is NOTHING WRONG with a Coast Range slope full of spindly Torreyas that grow under mature conifer forests with ground otherwise barren of understory vegetation — provided that every few centuries or so, fires revivify the soils or landslides open the canopy, at which time fresh stump sprouts enter a growth spurt and sexually reproduce, with some of the seed sprouting in places still favorable for successful development of rootstock, sufficient to weather out another shady period before the next slide or fire disturbance. In the wild, Torreya is thus adapted for spurts of sexual reproduction amidst long episodes of sexual quiescence.

    4. SIERRA MOUNTAINS CONSTRAINTS AND OPPORTUNITIES:
    Torreya also grows in steep ravines in the Sierras (as witnessed by the site I visited in Sequoia National Park), and there it is subject to the same constraints and opportunities as noted above. However, I also visited south-facing, steep dry slopes in which a canopy (of broadleaf, mostly evergreen oaks and laurels) was generally less than 30 feet tall, sometimes less than 20 feet tall. In these DROUGHT-STRESSED circumstances, Torreya has an opportunity to join others in the canopy as a sexually reproducing tree. Because the Sierra sites (unlike the Coast Range) are richly endowed with surface rocks and boulders, Torreya's LARGE SEED gives it a unique opportunity to germinate and establish in the shadow of rocks and boulders, eventually breaking through into sunlight.

    5. THE SYMBIOTIC ROLE OF NATIVE AMERICANS
    Because Torreya may require periodic fires to foster sexual reproduction as an understory tree, Native Americans may have played a symbiotic role in this tree's success. Active fire-suppression during the 20th century probably has been cumulatively detrimental, both in depriving Torreya of growth-spurt opportunities and through acidification of soils. My companion for the Santa Cruz area outing, Lee Klinger (his website for healing trees is "Sudden Oak Life" (www.SuddenOakLife.org), was convinced that the ancient Torreya specimens with gigantic trunk girths growing on the flat river terraces of Scotts Creek achieved such size only through the assistance of the Native inhabitants who may have favored Torreya for its big edible seed, just as they are known to have assisted oaks with edible acorns and redwoods that could provide shelter (in trunk bole caves created by intentional burning) and spiritual sustenance. In Scotts Creek watershed, we also found evidence that the Natives had "limed" the big redwoods, by depositing crushed shells at their base. For the very large Swanton Creek specimens, therefore, a continuation of the arborcultural assistance to which these giants have become accustomed may be a wise strategy.

    NOTE: On 8 October 2005, the Garden Section of the San Francisco Chronicle published an article that features the ideas and ongoing success of Lee Klinger's "SUDDEN OAK LIFE" project, and thus the efficacy of using lime and other techniques to counter soil acidification that stresses mature trees and thus makes them highly susceptible to the proximate cause of "Sudden Oak Death": the fungal-like Phytophthora ramorum.

    6. SUGGESTIONS FOR T. TAX ASSISTED MIGRATION:

    Although the species of Torreya now struggling in Florida demonstrably can grow in shady conditions, it may be a wise choice in effecting "assisted migration" northward for planters to seek out sites of recent disturbance or treefall for planting seed, and then to assist the seedling by weeding out plants that threaten to overtop it. Steep slopes are ideal, and if you can find surface rocks and boulders, plant Torreya seeds amidst them, especially in places where plants that need sun for germination and early growth would be unable to grow. For the long-term, after rootstock is established, human tending should not be necessary, and the tree could rely on windfall, slope slumpage, and perhaps the rare fire to occasionally (geologically speaking) open up canopy for growth spurts and sexual reproduction.



    Click to visit PHOTOGRAPHS and journal entries from Torreya field trips in:

  • Sequoia and Yosemite National Parks
  • Coast Range of north Napa Valley (Stevenson State Park)
  • Coast Range of northwest Napa Valley (Diamond Mountain Road)
  • Coast Range by Santa Cruz (Scotts Creek watershed)
  • Mt. Tamalpais State Park, Marin County
  • King Mountain Open Space, Larkspur (Marin County)
  • Mariposa County


  • Extracts from Other Web Pages on California Torreya


    1. General information: "http://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/plants/tree/torcal/


    2. Local knowledge of Torreya californica: http://www.tarol.com/torreya.html

    [EXTRACT from the website]

    Finding these trees requires a bit of knowledge. First of all, where to look? California Torreya grow amongst incense cedar and live oak in shady ravines and rocky gorges between 2,000 and 6,000 feet in elevation in the Sierra Nevada and slightly lower in the coastal ranges. I have found them growing in three nearby locations. The closest is about two miles up the Doyle Springs Trail near Camp Wishon in Sequoia National Forest. Next closest would be along the Crystal Cave Trail in Sequoia National Park. The third area is near Boyden Cave in Sequoia National Forest near Kings Canyon National Park. There, near the parking area, is a beautiful specimen, the largest I have seen!

    Second, how do you identify this tree? At first glance its foliage looks like that of a white fir. Its needles are deep green, flattened, and 1-2 inches long. Their needles are aromatic and this has led to them sometimes being called a "stinking cedar." Their fruit is a modified cone, blue-green, plum-like, and about 1 inch long. They are small trees, rarely attaining heights of 60 feet and 2 feet in diameter. They grow slowly, however, so although they do not reach a great size, they can live to be several centuries old. Their branches are slender and they spread out making for a slightly ungainly appearance. Unlike other conifers, they are dioecious, meaning that there are separate male and female trees. The fruits hang from the tips of the outer branches from the female trees in late summer and autumn. Male trees produce pollen but never fruit.

    Once you find a California Torreya tree you'll find it is adapted to its foothill environment. They can sprout permanent new trunks from their base when they are cut or burned, thus they are adapted to foothill fires. Their wood is durable and flexible and was used by Native Americans for making hunting bows. Their seeds were harvested and roasted for eating and their roots were used for making baskets.

    3. Other locations: http://www.botanik.uni-bonn.de/conifers/ta/to/californica.htm

    [EXTRACT from website]

    USA: California. Rare and local along mountain streams, protected slopes, creek bottoms, and moist canyons of the Coast Range and Sierra Nevada, at 0-2000 m elevation (Hils 1993). See also Thompson et al. (1999). Arno and Gyer (1973) indicate that it can be found in "draws and basins on Mt. Tamalpais in Marin County;" along "the road entering Yosemit Valley from El Portal" (Yosemite National Park); at "the entrance to Boyden Cave in Kings Canyon" (National Park); and "the trail to Crystal Cave and near Clough Cave in Sequoia National Park."

    I have only found it in one location so far, on the road towards Giant Forest a few miles beyond the Foothills Visitor Center in Sequoia National Park (36 32.558' N, 118 46.912' W). My notes report: "Here I find what is definitely the most prickly conifer I have ever encountered. This is a decent-sized little grove. They're growing amidst evergreen oaks, blue oaks, tanoak, a few small incense-cedars, and an understory with a xeric analogue of ladyfern, shrub oak, and probably poison oak. There's active regeneration, trees and seedlings growing both above and below the highway. Within 100 m of the sample point there are probably 50 stems taller than breast height, the largest being the one that I photographed the bark of, which has a dbh of about 25 cm. These trees are growing on a south- or southeast-facing slope. It seems to be a relatively dry microsite, but the torreyas are on locally concave topography. Slopes are 60-70%. We only find fruits on the largest, sun-grown specimen. Seedlings, of which the smallest I can find are about 15 cm tall, basically look the same as the larger plants except that their needles are shorter, about 1.5-2 cm vs. 4 cm on sun foliage in the mature trees." [photo: "californica2.jpg" caption=Tree in Sequoia National Park, CA [C.J. Earle, 24-Mar-01].

    4. More Locations and Plant Associations: http://reference.allrefer.com/wildlife-plants-animals/plants/tree/torcal/distribution-occurrence.html
    [EXTRACT from website:]

    California torreya is endemic to California. Its range has two distinct parts: one in the Coast Ranges and one in the Cascade-Sierra Nevada foothills. In the Coast Ranges, it is distributed from southwest Trinity County south to Monterey County. In the Cascade-Sierra Nevada foothills, it is distributed from Shasta County south to Tulare County [8]. Although not rare, it is not an abundant species. Local occurrence is widely scattered throughout its range [3], and trees are often infrequent in these localities [8].

    LISTED IN THESE ECOSYSTEMS. NOT OFFICIALLY ENDANGERED.

  • FRES20 Douglas-fir
  • FRES21 Ponderosa pine
  • FRES24 Hemlock - Sitka spruce
  • FRES27 Redwood
  • FRES28 Western hardwoods
  • FRES34 Chaparral - mountain shrub

    KUCHLER PLANT ASSOCIATIONS :

  • K001 Spruce - cedar - hemlock forest
  • K005 Mixed conifer forest
  • K006 Redwood forest
  • K007 Red fir forest
  • K011 Western ponderosa forest
  • K012 Douglas-fir forest
  • K025 Alder - ash forest
  • K029 California mixed evergreen forest
  • K030 California oakwoods
  • K033 Chaparral

    SAF COVER TYPES:

  • 207 Red fir
  • 213 Grand fir
  • 221 Red alder
  • 224 Western hemlock
  • 229 Pacific Douglas-fir
  • 230 Douglas-fir - western hemlock
  • 232 Redwood
  • 234 Douglas-fir - tanoak - Pacific madrone
  • 243 Sierra Nevada mixed conifer
  • 244 Pacific ponderosa pine - Douglas-fir
  • 245 Pacific ponderosa pine
  • 246 California black oak
  • 249 Canyon live oak

    HABITAT TYPES AND PLANT COMMUNITIES:
    California torreya is plastic is its habitat requirements, and occurs in many diverse plant communities. In the Coast Ranges, it grows in chaparral and various coastal forests such as redwood (Sequoia sempervirens). It is associated with canyon live oak (Quercus chrysolepis) and California bay (Umbellularia californica) woodlands in both coastal and inland foothill regions [10]. Inland populations are most commonly found in the ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) belt [3,8]. It is rare in chaparral communities of the Cascade-Sierra Nevada. It is not a dominant or indicator species in community or vegetation typings.

    LISTED AS A THREATENED SPECIES IN IUCN RED LIST
    http://www.redlist.org/search/details.php?species=34026
    Much of the population outside protected areas has declined. The species is relatively common in the Sierra Nevada but less so in the coastal ranges. The expansion of agriculture is mainly responsible for the decline.

  • 5. EXTRACT from 1973 book Discovering Sierra Trees by Stephen F. Arno (Yosemite/Sequoia Natural History Association).

    Finding California torreya requires considerable knowledge of where to search and what to look for. The species reaches its best development on cool shady slopes and in canyons of the coastal mountains in Lake and Mendocino counties; it inhabits draws and basins on Mount Tamalpais in Marin County. Also, it grows in various rocky gorges and ravines scattered along most of the western slope of the Sierra Nevada between 2000 and 6000 feet elevation. Torreyas line the road entering Yosemite Valley from El Portal. Other good places to find them include the entrance to Boyden Cave in Kings Canyon, and the trail to Crystal Cave and near Clough Cave in Sequoia National Park.

    In the south-central Sierra, torreya typically occupies rocky gulches too low and hot for Douglas-fir or areas beyond Douglas-fir's southern limits. In Sierra canyons, torreyas rarely attain two feet in diameter and 60 feet in height. Small size, coupled with their dense crowns, gives them a youthful appearance. Nevertheless, trees only 1 to 1.5 feet thick are likely to be two centuries old. Torreyas and coast redwood are notable among the world's conifers in their ability to sprout permanent new trunks from cut or burned stumps. In this respect, torreya, like the chaparral shrubs, is adapted to foothill fires.

    Note: another source reports that California torreya "prefers moist, shaded, north-facing slopes (but found in open, sunny, exposed locations), usually near watercourses between 2,000 and 6,000 feet on the western slope.

    6. EXTRACT from the 1999 book Conifers of California by Ronald M. Lanner (Cachuna Press).

    California nutmeg is an evergreen widley but sparsely scattered up and down the Coast Ranges and along the west side of the Sierra Nevada and Cascades. Never forming a continuous forest, but found rather as isolated trees or in small groups, the nutmeg is usually seen tucked into shaded ravines or rocky gorges, beneath a canopy of pines or other conifers. Where it is stunted by growth on serpentine soil, it is a shrub of the chaparral. But throughout most of its range it grows as a modest-size forest tree 30 to 50 feet tall. One giant near Fort Bragg in Mendocino county reached a height of 141 feet before it was illegally felled.

    Habitat: California nutmeg is found on moist, rocky microsites within the shade of tall, coniferous forests; it grows as a shrub on serpentine substrate. It has a wide array of associates and ranges from about 2000 to 7000 feet.

    Distribution: It grows in the Coast Ranges from southwest Trinity county to Fremont Peak in Monterey County. It is also found in the Cascades and Sierra Nevada, ranging from Shasta County south to Tulare County.


    Torreya in Korea

    1. In Bija-Rim Forest: http://www.lifeinkorea.com/Travel2/cheju/225

    [EXTRACT from website]

    This forest contains 2,500 Torreya nucifera, aged 300-600 years old, and is said to be the best area in the world for this single species of trees growing so densely together. Because the trees are evergreens, people can enjoy the dense forest all year long. Several rare parasitic plants grow within the trees. The trees blossom around April and fruits ripen in autumn. The fruits are widely used for medicinal purposes and food. The quality of the wood is excellent and is used for high-class furniture and stone checker boards.The Pija tree has been designated as Natural Monument #374 for protection.

    A natural nutmeg grove (Torreya nucifera community) on Mt. Hallasan (designated Natural Monument #384), extends over 448 thousand square meters. One of the few natural nutmeg groves in the world, it contains 2,570 trees ranging fromn 500 to 800 years of age. They measure from 7 to 14 meters in height, 0.5 to 1.4 meters in diameter (measured a meter from the ground), and 10-15 meters in width at the crown. In the past, nutmeg was valued as vermicide and its wood was popular for high quality furniture and paduk (go) boards for the wealthy. The area is also noted for many rare orchids which grow naturally. These include Nadop'ung-nan (Aerides japonicum Reichb. fil.) P'ung-nam (Neofinetia falcate hunb Hu), K'ongjjagae-ran (Bulbophyllum drymoglossum Maxim.), Huk-nanch'o (Bulbophyllum inronspicuum Maxim.), and Pija-ram (Sarcochilus japonicus, mig.)

    "The New Millennium Nutmeg":
    This 813-year old tree inhabits this nutmeg grove. It is the oldest nutmeg in Korea and the oldest of all evergreen trees on Jeju Island. This tree is a witness to the indomitable spirit of Korea's ancestors in overcoming hardships imposed by the environment and isolation, and was named the "New Millennium Nutmeg." Local residents wish the spiritual power of this noble tree to bring everyone happiness, prosperity, and health in the coming millennium.


    Torreya in China

    1. [Connie Barlow writes for this website]: I could find very little on the internet on Chinese species of genus Torreya. But Peter Wharton, Curator of the David C. Lam Asian Garden at the University of British Columbia Botanical Garden (Vancouver, BC) reported to us in January 2005 of sitings he made on a recent trip to China:

    "Very excited to see Torreya yunnanensis in the wilds of central southern Yunnan (Ailao Shan, 2475m)."





    Click to visit PHOTOGRAPHS and journal entries from Torreya field trips in:

  • Sequoia and Yosemite National Parks
  • Coast Range of north Napa Valley (Stevenson State Park)
  • Coast Range of northwest Napa Valley (Diamond Mountain Road)
  • Coast Range by Santa Cruz (Scotts Creek watershed)

  • Please let us know if you have additional information, and especially personal experience, with California or Asian species of Torreya growing in the wild. Email Connie Barlow.

  • Learn about other efforts to SAVE Torreya taxifolia from extinction.



    WWW www.TorreyaGuardians.org

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