California Torreya
The California Torreya tree (Torreya californica) is commonly called the California
nutmeg because its plum like fruit resembles that of nutmeg, the spice. That is the only
similarity between the two trees, however. California Torreya are evergreen conifers
that are in the yew (Taxaceae) family and grow only in California. The spice nutmeg
comes from a broad-leafed tree that grows in the tropics.

The California Torreya was named by an American botanist, John Torrey, who discovered
these trees in the 1830’s. Torrey’s work in identifying and classifying plants was
very influential and he coauthored a pioneering book on plants titled
A Flora of North
. The rarest pine in the United States, the Torrey Pine, which grows in only a
very small area near San Diego, was also named for him.

There are only two types of Torreya that grow in the United States; the other grows in
Florida. There are three more types that grow in China and Japan. These remaining
populations are mere remnants of an ancient lineage of trees that once grew throughout
the northern hemisphere, much like the relatives of giant sequoias once did. Because of
climactic changes these trees are now limited to only a few different places on Earth. I
am very lucky to have them growing in my backyard! But they are not an abundant tree
and can be difficult to find.

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 five 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 Hockett Trail that rises steeply from the South Fork
Campground in Sequoia National Park.  Third, you can find Torreya trees growing along
the Crystal Cave Trail in Sequoia National Park and further down canyon on the trail to
Marble Falls. The fifth 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. They do produce small
quantities of taxol, a drug that has been found to limit the growth of cancerous tumors,
but the Pacific Yew produces more and is the tree that’s harvested for this use.
A visit to Florida's Torreya State Park
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