Torreya nucifera / Japanese nutmeg-yew

Torreya nucifera, as described in 1946 by (L.) Philipp Franz von Siebold (1796–1866) and Joseph Gerhard Zuccarini (1790–1848), in Abhandlungen der Mathematisch-Physikalischen Classe der Königlich Bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 4th edition, is commonly known as Japanese nutmeg-yew, as well as 榧 (kaya) in the Japanese language. This appears to have been the first described species of Torreya, described and illustrated by Kaempfer in 1712 under the name Taxus nucifera, subsequently adopted by Linnaeus into his Species Plantarum in 1753. The species name is from the Latin language, meaning "nut-bearing," referring to its edible and highly regarded seeds.

Ethnobotany. This conifer yields edible seeds and cooking oil. It is commonly planted as an ornamental in North America and Europe. In 1916, E.H. Wilson wrote that "the wood is yellowish to pale brown, firm and lustrous and durable in water. It is used for making water-pails and for cabinet-work." It was traditionally used to make go-boards and bowls, but the tree is now protected and the wood is sourced only from natural mortality, so fine modern go-boards are mostly made from other stable softwoods with good figure and pale grain, such as species of Agathis or Picea.

Illustration by Siebold and Zuccarini (1835)
Illustration by Siebold and Zuccarini (1835)

Description. Japanese nutmeg tree is a slow-growing, evergreen coniferous species of tree which will grow to mature heights of 50 to 80 feet (15 - 25 m) tall with a trunk up to 5 feet (1.5 m) in diameter, measured at breast height. It is a subdioecious plant, with individual trees producing either mostly male or mostly female cones, but usually with at least some cones of the other sex present.

  • Leaves are needle-like, measuring 0.8 to 1.2 inches (2 - 3 cm) long and 0.12 inch (3 mm) broad, with a sharply spined tip and two whitish stomatal bands on the underside; they are spirally arranged, but twisted at the base to lie horizontally along either side of the stem.
  • Pollen cones are globose, measuring 0.2 to 0.24 inch (5 - 6 mm) in diameter, growing in a double row along the underside of a shoot.
  • Seed cones are borne in clusters of three to eight, maturing 18 to 20 months after pollination to a single seed surrounded by a fleshy layer, 0.8 inch (2 cm) long and 0.6 inch (1.5 cm) broad.
Distribution. This species is native to southern Japan and to South Korea's Jeju Island. In his 1916 book, The conifers and taxads of Japan, E .H. Wilson reports, "in one place only is it common, and that is on Takao-san, a hill some 1,500 feet (500 m) high, about 27 miles (15 km) southwest of Tokyo and in Musashi province," growing with Abies firma. We may hope that it persists in this locality. Wilson also reports impressive trees in the wild on Yakushima Island, and cites Sargent as having found trees with girths of up to 15 feet (5 m) wide "on the banks of the Kiso-gawa, near Agematsu." Wilson reports impressive trees in cultivation "At Hachiman Shrine, Kamo, in Satsuma province, Kyushu."

Hardy to USDA Zone 5 — cold hardiness limit between -20° and -10°F (-28.8° and -23.3°C).

Attribution from: Chris Earle; The Gymnosperm Database, ©2013

Torreya nucifera — a 1951 accession at the New York Botanical Garden, The Bronx, NY (USDA Hardiness Zone 7a); photo from 2020.
Photo by Katherine Wagner-Reiss
Torreya nucifera — in the Asian Collection at The U.S. National Arboretum, Washington, D.C., May, 2006.
Photo by Dax Herbst
Torreya nucifera — a closeup of foliage detail in early spring.
Photo by Dax Herbst
Torreya nucifera — foliage and seed cone detail, at New York Botanical Garden, USA.
Photo by Robbin Moran ©2006
Torreya nucifera — foliage and pollen cone detail, at New York Botanical Garden, USA.
Photo by Dennis Stevenson ©2005
Torreya nucifera —foliage and pollen cone detail.
Photo by Blake Willson -
Torreya nucifera —foliage detail, adaxial aspect.
Photo by Blake Willson -
Torreya nucifera — seed cone detail.
Photo by Blake Willson -
Torreya nucifera —branch and foliage detail.
Photo by Blake Willson -
Torreya nucifera — branch and lead shoot structure (branches in whorls).
Photo by Blake Willson -
Torreya nucifera — a mature specimen at UBC Botanical Garden, Vancouver, B.C., Canada.
Photo by Blake Willson -
A 600-year old Torreya nucifera in Saiho-ji, Sasayama, Hyogo, Japan.