Torreya grandis / Chinese nutmeg-yew

Torreya grandis, as described 1857 by John Lindley (1799 – 1865), in The Gardeners' Chronicle & Agricultural Gazette. Here he published the account of its earlier discovery by plant hunter Robert Fortune (1812 – 1880). Though already known and used by the Chinese for centuries, Fortune was the first European to discover it while exploring northeast Zhejiang province in search of seeds of Larix kaempferi. Initially he found only young, cultivated specimens of the Torreya, but was eventually guided to a valley of mature trees. He purchased seeds and sent them back to England. Common names for this species include Chinese nutmeg-yew and 榧树 (fěi shù) in the Chinese language. The species name refers to the relatively large size of its seed cones.


Description. Chinese nutmeg-yew is an evergreen coniferous species of tree that will grow to mature heights of 80 feet (25 m) tall, with a dense crown, becoming broadly conical to domed and irregular with age.

  • Branches are spreading and ascending, with paired, slender, spreading, or drooping branchlets, which turn from green, to yellowish green, to grayish brown after a year.
  • Terminal foliar buds are quite small.
  • The stiff, leathery, drooping leaves are glossy dark green in color. The flat, sharply pointed leaves measure 0.4 to 1.8 inches (1 - 4.5 cm) long. The twin stomatal bands on the undersides are light brown and less than 0.04 inches (1 mm) wide.
  • The pollen cones, borne solitary in the leaf axils, form short rows under the leaves and measure 0.2 to 0.32 inch (5 - 8 mm) long and 0.18 to 0.2 inches (4.5 - 5 mm) wide.
  • The seed cones are borne solitary, paired, or clustered together. They are of globose shape, measuring 0.8 to 1.6 inches (20 - 40 mm) long and 0.5 inches (12 mm) wide. they have a fleshy, pale purplish brown aril.
Distribution. This species is native to eastern and central China — Anhui, Chongqing, Fujian, Guizhou, Hubei, Hunan, Jiangsu, Jiangxi, south Shaanxi, Sichuan, and Zhejiang provinces where it grows in temperate forest settings, at elevations of 650 to 4,600 feet (200 - 1,400 m) above sea level.

Hardy to UDSA Zone 8 — cold hardiness limit between 10° and 20°F (-12.1° and -6.7°C).

Torreya grandis is an excellent timber tree and has been cultivated in China for centuries for its edible seeds (locally called xiangfei) and the medical and culinary oil from its arils (feishu). Culinary cultivars have been developed for those purposes and in some cases, they are cultivated like fruit trees.

Attribution from: Liguo Fu, Nan Li & Robert R. Mill. "Torreya grandis". Flora of China. Missouri Botanical Garden, St. Louis, MO & Harvard University Herbaria, Cambridge, MA.

Torreya grandis - Twin 1989 accessions, seed collected directly from the wild, in Eastern China, by P. Del Tredici. Photo taken November 26, 2014 at the Arnold Arboretum, Boston, Massachusetts.
Photo by John Waskiewicz
Torreya grandis - foliage detail
Photo by John Waskiewicz
Torreya grandis - underside of leaves showing stomatal bands
Photo by John Waskiewicz