Torreya taxifolia, commonly called the Florida Torreya, is the most endangered conifer in North America. A conifer is a type of tree that reproduces via cones instead of flowers and are covered with needle-like leaves. Pine trees including Christmas trees are conifers, and the Florida Torreya is the rarest in North American conifers, being restricted to only a few counties in Florida and one county in Georgia near the Apalachicola River, just west of Tallahassee.
Florida Torreya. Photo by Lucas Meers, Conservation Officer
Also known as the ‘stinking cedar’ because of the musky smell it gives off when the needles or bark is rubbed or crushed, it’s this smell that is thought to make it a strong attractant to deer as they rub themselves on the branches to collect the smell. Despite the odor, however, early settlers used it for many purposes including fuel, furniture and even Christmas trees!
What was once a very common tree with an estimated 650,000 individuals throughout its range, the tree’s population began declining in the 1950s because of a fungus that spread and killed off many of the trees. The fungus triggers the tree to form cankers, or open sores, on the trunk causing the tree to die back to the ground. The tree responds by growing sprouts from the roots, but they begin showing cankers before the tree can grow to a size that allows it to reproduce. Since the introduction of the fungus, the tree’s population has declined to about 1,000 known individual trees.
History on the discovery of Torreya taxifolia. Photo by Jen Morgan, Senior Graphic Designer
After holding on to a few remaining individuals, in 2018 Hurricane Michael barreled up the Apalachicola River, straight through the heart of the Torreya’s remaining range. Ninety-per cent of the forest canopy was lost. Some Florida Torreya trees were lost too, either washed away through the flooding or covered by larger, fallen trees. What are traditionally understory trees protected by the canopy of taller trees, the surviving Torreya after Hurricane Michael are now exposed to direct sunlight, and we aren’t sure how they will react.
Gregory House entrance pre- and post-Hurricane Michael. Photos courtesy of Emily Coffey, Atlanta Botanical Garden.
Many trees remain bent from the Hurricane-force winds over a year later. Photo by Lucas Meers.
Since 2017, we’ve teamed up with Atlanta Botanical Garden and the Florida State Park Service to see how best we can assist in saving this critically endangered tree. Over multiple trips, staff from Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens (JZG) have assisted with counting and identifying new trees, setting up fences around trees to prevent deer rubbing and taking cuttings from the wild trees to propagate them in Atlanta Botanical Garden’s conservation nursery.
Most recently, in early December 2019, a team of 10 JZG staff across many departments set out to better understand how the trees are responding to the change in the ecosystem conditions after Hurricane Michael whipped through the heart of the Florida Torreya’s remaining range.
The JZG team from Left to Right: Lucas Meers (Conservation), Jolie Olsen (W.I.L.D. Steward), Cidina Matamoros (Horticulture), David Washington (W.I.L.D. Steward), Heidi Hetzel (Horticulture), Jen Morgan (Marketing), Robin Vancil (Horticulture), Arden Luster (W.I.L.D. Steward), Chris Conner (Education), Walt Quinn (JZG Board Committee Member).
The JZG staff arrived and met the Atlanta Botanical Garden team who leads the project to safeguard the Torreya. Earlier in the year, they deployed data logging devices near select trees that collected humidity and temperature information.
In teams, we set out to find the trees with the data loggers to download the data and collect additional information including soil compaction, soil pH, soil moisture, tree cover, surrounding tree species and if there were any visible signs of the cankers caused by the fungus or any sign of sunburn on the needles since they are now exposed to much more sunlight than before.
Conditions were difficult. Because it had been a year since Hurricane Michael, the newly opened canopy allowed for a surge of understory plant growth, including tangled grape vine and thorn-covered wild blackberry bushes. On top of the constant tripping, cuts and scrapes, climbing over and under 100-year old trees provided a much-needed workout and test of our physical and mental abilities.
The conditions of traversing the area. Photo by Lucas Meers.
Despite the physical challenges and difficult terrain, we were able to collect data on many of the trees, and most were still in decent health. While many had signs of cankers, very few had visible signs on sunburn. The trip to Torreya State Park was exciting and productive. It was great to see many of our Zoo staff from different departments working together to help save a species from extinction.
This region of Florida is often overlooked by visitors from out of state. The hilly terrain and deep ravines are a hidden gem of Florida and provided an alternative vantage point from the traditional coastline and sandy beaches our great state is known for. We encourage people to visit this unique and special region of Florida for a different perspective on what exciting environments Florida has to offer!
Data collection. Photo by Jen Morgan.
Written by Lucas Meer, Conservation Officer