Florida Torreya Tree
Ellery Sedgwick, Birdsong Volunteer

Like most places, Aspalaga, Florida, has seen a lot of beginnings, and almost as many endings. But perhaps Aspalaga has seen a few more endings than most.

From the east bank of the Apalachicola, Aspalaga's bluffs witnessed the flourishing of a Weeden Island culture in the first millennium A.D. But of course those late-Woodlands villages are long gone now. Originally, their location was marked by a number of large earthen mounds, including a burial mound containing pottery ranging from the unadorned to the anthropomorphic - at least until decades of plowing and a 1903 excavation led by paper-heir-cum-archaeologist Clarence B. Moore put an end to that.

The early- and mid- 1800's in Aspalaga witnessed the nascence of a bustling mill town, the passing of Andrew Jackson's troops in the First Seminole War, the building of Fort Barbour during the Second Seminole War, and an increasing stream of river travelers. As railroads and then roads supplanted rivers as the primary mode of transport, however, the town of Aspalaga dwindled, finally disappearing alongside the steamboat industry in the mid-20th century. Now there isn't even a post office, let alone a town, and if anyone knows the exact location- or really much of anything at all- of Fort Barbour, that knowledge is well beyond the reach of even Google. The sum total of Aspalaga, as far as much of the world is concerned, is a nearby rest stop off of I-10 just east of the Dewey M. Johnson Bridge.

But for today we are really concerned with just one of Aspalaga's many endings. Around 130,000 years ago, the Eemian interglacial period brought Florida's beaches to Aspalaga's doorstep. But eventually the waters retreated as the Eemian gave way to the last glacial period that we know, a bit chronocentrically, as "The" Ice Age. And it was the end of the Eemian that resulted in the present distribution of Torreya taxifolia. T. taxifolia is commonly known as the Florida torreya, Florida nutmeg, stinking yew, stinking cedar, or gopherwood tree - this last name coming about in the 1950's after a Bristol lawyer and preacher named Elvy Callaway made a minor tourist attraction of the Appalachicola bluffs, claiming the area as the Garden of Eden and identifying the torreya as the biblical gopherwood used in Noah's Ark. The torreya is an ancient tree, dating back some 170 million years, and during the Eemian, the Torreya genus is believed to have been widely distributed in northern hemisphere. Subsequent glaciation fragmented and isolated torreya populations, completely eradicating the Torreya genus from Europe and leaving just a handful of species with relatively restricted ranges - four scattered through eastern Asia, one in central California,and luckily for us, one in the Florida panhandle.

As the Eemian oceans ebbed, glaciers descended across North America. During the Last Glacial Maximum, the ice sheet extended almost to the Ohio River near present-day Louisville. North America's biomes shifted south, with its eastern temperate forests compressed into an area that stretched from southern Appalachia to peninsular Florida. Over the course of the Ice Age, the flora of northwest Florida underwent several changes due to climatic fluctuations within the glacial period, but over time it included numerous species and genera thought of as more northern trees today, including the American chestnut and even spruce trees. Among the trees that seems to have migrated south during the cooler, moister conditions that prevailed during portions of the Ice Age was the Florida torreya.

And while the spruce and other botanic snowbirds returned north as our present Holocene heated up, the torreya stuck around. Some theorize that the torreya is an "anachronistic" tree, whose dispersal relied on an animal - speculation ranges from giant tortoises to mastodons - that went extinct during the Ice Age. This is similar to what is believed to have happened with the better-known pairing of the Osage orange and North America's Pleistocene horses. Thus deprived of any reliable mechanism for long-range distribution of its seed, the Florida torreya's recent natural range is restricted to a few miles along the east bank of the Apalachicola - Decatur County in Georgia, and Liberty and Gadsden Counties in Florida, as well as one small population several miles west of the river in Jackson County. Intriguingly, there also seems to have been a small grove along the Apalachicola's upstream tributary, the Chattahoochee, in Columbus Georgia. Sadly, two of the old Columbus trees were cut down only recently, and now there is a single tree there that is believed to be the oldest living Florida torreya. The exact age of the tree and whether it was planted or grew naturally is not known. While other Torreya species also seem to have limited seed dispersal, these species occur in mountainous regions where altitudinal migration - short-distance movements to higher elevations - offered a refuge not readily available to the Florida species, which could explain their more robust populations and larger present geographical ranges.

As with the town of Aspalaga, the 20th century was not kind to the Florida torreya. Hardy Bryan Croom, the original owner of Tallahassee's Goodwood Plantation, first described the tree to western science around 1833, around the time Fort Barbour was built in advance of the Second Seminole War, and just a few years before Croom was killed in an 1837 steamboat accident without ever completing the Goodwood house. At the time, the torreya, which Croom named after fellow botanist John Torrey, was fairly common within its very restricted range, comprising an estimated four percent of the forests where it was endemic. Throughout the 1800's, its population was estimated at over half a million trees. Gradually, however, its numbers were reduced through the use of its decay-resistant wood for fence posts, as well as its occasional harvest for Christmas trees. By at least the 1930's, however, the Florida torreya population began a much more precipitous decline, as the trees exhibited needle blight and stem cankers. Every known "wild" tree, with the possible exception of the Columbus tree, has been killed back to the ground. Since 1914, the population of wild torreya trees declined from an estimated 357,500 individuals to around 500 in 2010, and while some top-killed trees have resprouted, it is believed that no natural reproduction from seed is occurring in its native range along the Apalachicola. A species of Fusarium fungus, possibly introduced, seems to be the culprit, although some believe the pathogen's effects are being compounded by environmental stresses such as increased browsing and scraping by deer, fire suppression, climate change, and the altered hydrology of the Apalachicola bluffs.

Like the Osage orange, which was cultivated by Native Americansfor use in bows and later by ranchers as living fencerows, the Florida torreyais now largely dependent on mankind for its dispersal, and likely its continued existence. The torreya was one of the first plants to gain protection under Florida law when, in 1933, the legislature passed bills prohibiting the harvest of the trees on public lands, or on private lands without permission. Somewhat curiously,the bills were restricted to Liberty and Gadsden County. Jackson County's torreyas - perhaps not yet discovered - were not afforded any protection. [Even with this oversight, however, the torreya acts were likely among the more enlightened pieces of forestry legislation for this period. In the foreword to the 1934 anthology of Florida's forestry laws containing the torreya protection acts, the state forester declared "war on Demon wild-fire", warning that even prescribed fires "make idle lands, idle industries, and idle hands."] The torreya was listed as critically endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 1983.

Since their initial naming by Croom, torreyas have garnered keen interest in the horticultural and scientific communities, and the tree is included in botanical gardens and arboretums around the country. Its ability to thrive in more northerly locations, such as Callaway Gardens, Biltmore, the National Arboretum, and even Harvard's Arnold Arboretum, would seem to support the theory of Florida torreyas as Pleistocene holdovers. In a case, perhaps, of history repeating itself, most of the torreyas found in the nursery trade in Florida today - when these rare trees can be found at all - originated as seeds and cuttings from these northern specimens. While rare, they are worth tracking down - versatile ornamentals that make fairly dense, conical specimen trees in sun or looser, gracefully drooping understory trees.



Listed below are all of the "Old Timey Plant" articles. We will be adding to the list so please check back here again!

Birdsong's Old-Timey Plant Sale is March 19, 2016.
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