Torrey Pine

Trail through Torrey Pines forest Photo: James Forte

Trail through Torrey Pines forest
Photo: James Forte

I’m having one of those expat moments today, and find myself feeling a little homesick for my own native habitat of the California coast, so I thought I’d write about one of my favorite trees that grows only there. The rarest known wild pine tree in the North America is the Torrey Pine (Pinus torreyana), which grows exclusively on a small area of the coast north of San Diego, and in a small grove on one Santa Rosa Island, one of the Channel Islands.

The two existing habitats of the Torrey pine

The two existing habitats of the Torrey pine

Although it has been theorized that the tree’s range once extended up the coast as far north as Oregon, by the time the tree was described in 1858 by botanist John Torrey (for whom the tree is named), there were less than 300 individual trees found during the course of the Mexican-American Boundary Survey which had gathered the samples.

It’s a tree adapted to very harsh conditions in the wild. Slow-growing, it sends its tap roots exploring through the clefts and cracks of cliffs where there is very little dirt. A small seedling can have a 2-foot (60 cm) root, an adult tree of 60 feet (19 m) can have a tap root three or four times that length. The large pine cones take years to mature, and the tough pine nuts dropped on to the ground only gradually and over a period of years – these are too indestructible to be eaten by most birds,  can be viable for up to ten years, and in an unprotected habitat, would best burst into germination only after being cracked by a  fire. The tenacious adaptations of this tree to a dry, coastal environment are part of what make it so fragile in the wild.

The tree was named the Solitary Pine by early Spanish explorers, but during the course of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the pine rooted itself in local lore. Rather than being commercially and residentially developed as all of the neighboring lands were, this small coastal area found supporters who wanted to preserve the tree and its habitat. I have little doubt that without this intervention, the Torrey pine would be another extinct species we would read about but never see in the wild.

The Torrey pine is widely planted in southern California, but the ornamental and cultivated trees often look quite different from the preserved wild ones found in Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. The cultivated trees are tall, straight and have rounded heads, while the wild trees are smaller, with the crooked, windswept forms that make them so memorable. At least, for me.

View from Torrey Pines reserve Photo: Norman Koren

View from Torrey Pines reserve. A great spot to observe marine wildlife – also along the migratory path of whales.
Photo: Norman Koren


Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve website

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