I first heard about the world’s most endangered coniferous tree, the Florida torreya (Torreya taxifolia) while taking a tree identification course in college in the late 1960s. This species had been reduced in the wild to a few Apalachicola River tributary ravine habitats, which Torreya State Park had been created to include. It was hoped that the species could make a last stand there and, hopefully under state protection, become re-established as a viable population. I have visited that park a few times but have seen no evidence that the Florida torreya is rebounding therein. The last time I walked some of the wilder ravines in the park, all the specimens encountered were small and severely grazed by deer or used by bucks to scrape the velvet off their antlers. None of these plants were receiving any protection whatsoever from deer or other wildlife, and I got the distinct impression that they were doomed by browsers and official inattention.
But this was not always the case. Early botanists described the tree as a prominent mid- and under-story species growing along a 65-km stretch of the Apalachicola River and up its tributaries, achieving up to a meter in circumference and 20 meters in height. A still-unexplained “catastrophe” in the 1950s, however, laid waste to the plants, so now there are only stump and root sprouts within its historic range. It is reminiscent of the chestnut blight, and a similar fungal pathogen is thought to be the culprit although little research into the cause has been done.
Over the years, I have discussed this situation with some of my naturalist friends. All who have seen the torreyas on the state park agree that it is a sad situation and are resigned to losing the species in the long run. I often asked why could we not artificially propagate it and plant it more abundantly within and outside of the state park. Most responses were glass-half-empty statements that need not be repeated, but some of my comrades had the curious, quasi-religious belief that if it didn’t already grow elsewhere then it shouldn’t be planted elsewhere! One fellow actually stated, “If it was meant to be there, it would already be there.” I was astounded at this attitude, but this mentality evidently holds sway over the state park system in regards to the Florida torreya. For shame!
It has been proposed that the Florida torreya might have become “trapped” in a Florida peak-glacial pocket and is unable to naturally re-expand northward into cooler climes, which it possibly prefers as a consequence of the absence of a co-evolved seed disperser. I am not inclined to believe in the seed-disperser hypothesis, though, as squirrels assiduously seek out torreya seeds and eat and presumably cache them, and because the species was propagating itself quite nicely before the 1950s. Fortunately, it has been artificially propagated successfully at the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina and at the Atlanta Botanical Garden. I have seen the Biltmore trees; they are truly beautiful, dark glossy evergreens and I have wanted one ever since.
About a year ago, I read of the Torreya Guardians (http://www.torreyaguardians.org/). This group of dedicated individuals has determined that the species will probably go extinct under current public management policies. Deeming this unacceptable, they have assembled unofficially (no membership roll, no dues and no officers) in the private sector to try to bring the species back from the brink of extinction. They have done quite a lot of research on its propagation requirements, both from cuttings and seeds obtained from Biltmore and Atlanta, and hope to re-establish it within its theoretical cooler-climate range outside of Florida.
As I own a 2-acre lot in the mountains a few miles from Biltmore and (ahem) have a green thumb and a jones for biodiversity, I contacted them asking if they could spare me a few seeds. After many months, they responded with an offer of 10 seeds! But they want me to propagate them in Florida rather than North Carolina because they want to learn whether the species can live in Florida in places other than Torreya State Park. Wow! I am just so excited that I can hardly stand it! I received the seeds today and promptly set them out according to their recommendations. I am now a Torreya Guardian.