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Torreya californica

(California nutmeg-yew)

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Torreya californica, as validly described in 1854 by John Torrey (1796-1873) in New York Journal of Pharmacy, 3rd edition. The epithet californica, not surprisingly, means “of, or from California.” Common names include California nutmeg-yew, California torreya, and stinking cedar.  This species is neither a cedar, nor closely related to the true Nutmeg. It shares the third-listed common name with its closest American relative, the endangered Florida nutmeg-yew (Torreya taxifolia) of the Florida Panhandle. Historical synonyms include Torreya myristica Hooker and Tumion californicum (Torrey) Greene.

Torreya_californica_-_Lemaire (1)Description. California nutmeg-yew is an evergreen coniferous species of tree which grows to mature heights of 50 to 80 feet (15 – 25 m) tall, with a trunk diameter of 1.6 to 3.2 feet (0.5 – 1 m) wide at breast height. It can also apear shrubby in character, to 13 feet (4 m) tall in coastal chaparral locations. This conifer is dioecious, with pollen cones and seed cones developing on separate plants.

  • The crown is dense and conical, becoming dome-shaped and irregular with age, with closely-spaced, upwardly angled to almost horizontal branches bearing pairs of upwardly angled, horizontal, or drooping branchlets rather densely clothed with non-overlapping foliage.
  • Twigs change from yellowish green to tan to reddish brown in their second, third, and fourth years.
  • Terminal foliar buds are quite small.
  • The stiff, leathery leaves are a lustrous dark green color, and pungently aromatic when crushed. They are flat around the midrib, and sharply pointed with a long cuspidate tip, a linear-lanceolate outline; and straight, or slightly sickle-shaped. Individual needles measure 1.2 to 3.2 inches (3 – 8 cm) long and 0.06 to 0.12 inches (1.5 – 3 mm) wide, with a short, twisted stalk 0.04 to 0.12 inches (1 – 3 mm) long. The abaxial aspect (underside) features two deeply impressed, glaucous bands of stomata.
  • Pollen cones are pale yellow to white in color, with an elliptical shape, measuring 0.18 to 0.24 inches (4.5 – 6 mm), borne solitary in the axils of the leaves, in a double row under the leaves. Pollination occurs between March and May.
  • Seed cones are borne on current-year twigs, borne single or paired, sessile. They are minute at first, consisting of an ovule surrounded by a fleshy sac, maturing after two years to 1 to 1.4 inches (25 – 35 mm) long and 0.8 to 1.2 inches (20 – 30 mm) wide, surrounded by a fleshy light green aril, streaked with darker green or purple. Torreya californica is wind pollinated and seed production is erratic.  Good seep crops may be followed by crop failure the following year.
  • Seeds normally (but not always) require a 9 to 12 month stratification period to germinate.
Native range of Torreya californica
Native range of Torreya californica

Distribution. This species is endemic to USA — California, with scattered populations in both the Coast Ranges and the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada, found growing at elevations of 325 to 8200 feet (100 – 2,500 m) above sea level in small groves in mixed riparian evergreen and deciduous montane forests along streamsides and in chaparral shrublands on slopes. Best growth occurs on moist sites. The climate through much of the native range can be characterized as Mediterranean, with hot, dry summers and cool, wet winters. The summer climate is moderated in the outer Coastal Ranges by cool marine air and fog. This species is rather shade tolerant, though young trees in an understory have a slower growth rate.  Following disturbances such as logging or fire, regeneration can occur through sprouts from the roots, root crown, and bole.

Hardy to USDA Zone 7, cold hardiness limit between 0º to 10ºF (-17.7° and -12.2°C).

California nutmeg-yew may not be rare, but it is far from common, as its populations are widely scattered. Nonetheless, this species has a long history of human use in California. Due to its lightness, elasticity, and durability, native peoples used the wood for bow-making, and root fibers for basket making.  Additionally, the sharp needle tips were used in tattooing and the large seeds as a food source. Commercial timber harvesting in the late 19th century through mid 20th century left few if any stands of large trees, but local use for the wood has included fence posts, woodworking, and furniture making, the latter especially due to its even color and ability to take a fine finish. Although it has been in cultivation since the the 1850s and has a handsome, symmetrical appearance, Torreya californica is not commonly planted in a landscape setting and few cultivars have been selected and propagated over the years. Hybrids with the Japanese nutmeg-yew (Torreya nucifera), have been reported, but are rarely cultivated.

Attributed from: Aris G. Auders & Derek P. Spicer; RHS Encyclopedia of Conifers; ©2012 Kingsblue Press

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