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 1830â€™s. Torreyâ€™s work in identifying and classifying plants was very influential and he coauthored a pioneering book on plants titled A Flora of North America. 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 â€œstinking cedar.â€� 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 youâ€™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 thatâ€™s harvested for this use.