This past summer, I visited Florida’s Torreya State Park to see the United States’ rarest tree species. Located along the eastern bank of the Apalachicola River, this state park protects Torreya taxifolia, an endangered and extremely range-restricted gymnosperm species in the family Taxaceae (the yew family).
My interest in Torreya began several years ago, when I was working in California doing fire ecology fieldwork. On one of our weekends off, my friend Paul and I decided to go hiking at Mt. Tamalpais, a 784-meter peak between San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean. Being botanists, we planned our hike based on the plants we wanted to see; we acquired recent specimen data (including GPS points) from herbarium records, overlaid those points on the trail map, and picked a route accordingly.
One of the plants we were looking for was Torreya californica, a California-endemic species in a small (<10 species) northern hemisphere genus.* Torreya californica is locally abundant in ravine habitats throughout the California Coastal Ranges and Sierra Nevada. The beginning of our search was filled with false starts, as time after time we would catch sight of some distant tree which we were sure was the one we wanted, only to find that, upon a closer inspection, it was just another Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii).
We finally spotted a grove of our trees of interest as we got closer to the top of the mountain.
Fast-forward three years, and I was in Florida doing vegetation mapping fieldwork in Gulf Islands National Seashore. I decided that since I’d already seen one of the two Torreya species in the United States, I ought to see the other—Florida’s Torreya taxifolia.
Florida torreya was once an abundant species within its very limited distribution. Today is a different story: “Since 1962 there have been no observed canopy sized trees, nor mature seed producing trees” (Schwartz et al. 2000a). Over the last century, particularly since the 1950s, the population of Torreya taxifolia has declined by around 98.5 percent due to disease and complicating environmental changes (Lee 1995; Schwartz and Hermann 1999; Schwartz et al. 1995, 2000a; Smith et al. 2011).
When I arrived at the state park, I saw Torreya taxifolia almost immediately—planted near the parking lot.
Nearby, I caught a glimpse of a larger tree. I’m not sure whether it was also planted or whether it is a naturally occurring individual.
I hiked a few of the park’s trails, but the rain (at one point I was caught in a downpour) prevented me from exploring the area as thoroughly as I would have liked. I looked closely for Torreya taxifolia whenever a trail intersected a ravine (the species’ preferred habitat), but didn’t see any live individuals aside from those at the entrance.
What does the future hold for Florida torreya? The species is likely to persist in the short term (Schwartz et al. 2000b), but in the long term, extinction in the wild is a real threat. There are currently in situ and ex situ conservation efforts to protect this species, and one group is advocating for assisted migration (http://www.torreyaguardians.org). I’m hopeful that some of these conservation projects will be successful; for now, I’m glad that I had the chance to see this species growing in its native range.
* Extant Torreya species are present in the United States and eastern Asia; however, fossil evidence shows that the genus also occurred in Europe up to the Pleistocene (Li et al. 2001). See Burke (1975) and Jang et al. (2001) for additional information on the economic botany of this genus; see Xiao et al. (2008) and Ghimire and Heo (2014) to put this genus in a phylogenetic context.
Burke, J. G. 1975. Human use of the California nutmeg tree, Torreya californica, and of other members of the genus. Economic Botany 29(2): 127-140.
Ghimire, B. and K. Heo. 2014. Cladistic analysis of Taxaceae sl. Plant systematics and evolution 300(2): 217-223.
Jang, Y. P., S. R. Kim, and Y. C. Kim. 2001. Neuroprotective dibenzylbutyrolactone lignans of Torreya nucifera. Planta medica 67(5): 470-472.
Lee, J. C., X. Yang, M. W. Schwartz, G. Strobel, and J. Clardy. 1995. The relationship between an endangered North American tree and an endophytic fungus. Chemistry & biology 2(11): 721-727.
Li, J., C. C. Davis, M. J. Donoghue, S. Kelley, and P. Del Tredici. 2001. Phylogenetic relationships of Torreya (Taxaceae) inferred from sequences of nuclear ribosomal DNA ITS region. Harvard Papers in Botany 6(1): 275-281.
Little, E.L., Jr. 1971. Atlas of United States trees, volume 1: Conifers and important hardwoods. U.S. Department of Agriculture Miscellaneous Publication 1146, 9 p., 200 maps.
Schwartz, M. W. and S. M. Hermann. 1999. Is slow growth of the endangered Torreya taxifolia (Arn.) normal? Journal of the Torrey Botanical Society 126(4): 307-312.
Schwartz, M. W., S. M. Hermann, and C. S. Vogel. 1995. The catastrophic loss of Torreya taxifolia: Assessing environmental induction of disease hypotheses. Ecological Applications 5(2): 501-516.
Schwartz, M. W., S. M. Hermann, and P. J. van Mantgem. 2000a. Estimating the magnitude of decline of the Florida torreya (Torreya taxifolia Arn.). Biological Conservation 95(1): 77-84.
Schwartz, M. W., S. M. Hermann, and P. J. van Mantgem. 2000b. Population persistence in Florida torreya: comparing modeled projections of a declining coniferous tree. Conservation Biology 14(4): 1023-1033.
Smith, J. A., K. O’Donnell, L. L. Mount, K. Shin, K. Peacock, A. Trulock, T. Spector, J. Cruse-Sanders, and R. Determann. 2011. A novel Fusarium species causes a canker disease of the critically endangered conifer, Torreya taxifolia. Plant Disease 95(6 (): 633-639.
Xiao, P. G., B. Huang, G. B. Ge, and L. Yang. 2008. Interspecific relationships and origins of Taxaceae and Cephalotaxaceae revealed by partitioned Bayesian analyses of chloroplast and nuclear DNA sequences. Plant Systematics and Evolution 276(1-2): 89-104.