By Doug Alderson, Apalachicola Riverkeeper Outreach & Advocacy Director
One of the oldest known tree species on Earth, having once lived across North America, the torreya tree (Torreya taxifolia) is now the most endangered conifer in North America. According to the Florida Park Service, only about 200 torreya trees survive today in their only remaining native habitat—the Apalachicola bluffs and ravines along the Apalachicola River. They are considered a relic of the last Ice Age, having survived in the steep ravines after glaciers retreated.
Famed biologist E.O. Wilson first visited Torreya State Park in 1957. “I came here the way you would go to Paris to visit a cathedral,” he said during a 2018 visit to the park. “I just had to see the torreya.”
Because oils in the tree help to prevent the wood from rotting, the tree was once popular for fence posts, shingles and a host of other uses. The odiferous resin gave the tree a nickname—“stinking cedar”—and a local minister once put forth that the torreya was the “gopher wood” Noah used to build the ark. He maintained that the tree’s native habitat was considered to be the original Garden of Eden, thus the reason a popular hiking trail on Nature Conservancy property bears the name “Garden of Eden Trail.”
For decades, an introduced blight caused by fungus has been striking down torreya trees before they can reach maturity. The current trees are only re-sprouting from root stock. And Hurricane Michael certainly added to the downfall. Normally an understory tree, many surviving torreya trees are now in full sunlight, so it is unknown how well they will survive.
To prevent the torreya tree from becoming extinct, the nonprofit Torreya Keepers works with landowners to preserve the tree’s genetic lines. Places such as the Atlanta Botanical Gardens, referred to as a modern-day ark, are growing hundreds of torreya trees from cuttings. The goal is to find genes that can help the remaining trees fight the fungal blight and reproduce in the wild, helping the torreya tree reclaim its place in the biodiversity of the Apalachicola bluffs and ravines.
“Every scrap of biological diversity is priceless,” wrote E.O. Wilson in 1992, “to be learned and cherished, and never to be surrendered without a struggle.”
To learn more about the Torreya State Park region, often called the Garden of Eden, check out this WFSU video blog by Rob Diaz de Villegas.