Charles C. Parry

The Namesake of the Parry Grove

From Notes from the Naturalist by Hank Nichol

Charles Christopher Parry was born in Glouchester, England in 1823, but he grew up in upstate New York. He attended the College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City. Medical students of the 19th century studied botany because doctors still had to make their own medicines. A lot of them found they liked botanizing better than doctoring. Parry was one of these. Nevertheless, he graduated in 1846 and set up practice in Davenport, Iowa. He didn’t stay settled long. In 1847, he went on the Northwest Geological Expedition. He sent some plants he had collected to John Torrey, MD Torrey was professor of botany at Princeton and a fellow P & S grad. Torrey wrote to Asa Grey of Harvard, also a botanist, also an MD, that Parry “makes very nice specimens.”

In 1846 the United States made war on Mexico and won. In 1848 the two countries signed the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Mexico ceded California, New Mexico, and a lot more to the United States. The Treaty called for a commission drawn from both countries to survey the new boundary. Parry was one of several botanists with the expedition. By 1850 the Boundary Commissions work was mostly done. Parry didn’t have much that was official to keep him busy. He went prospecting for coal. On June 30, 1850, he wrote to Torrey:

“I have been some 20 miles up the coast to the Soledad Valley to examine a seam of lignite which is exposed in the high bluff overlooking the beach. I here found a new species of pine growing in sheltered places bout the bluff. Its characters are so unique I am in hopes it may be nondescript…. if new I wish it with your permission to bear the name Pinus Torreyana…”

Of course the tree had been known to Indians and settlers, but it was new to science. Entomologists like to claim the discovery because one of them, John Le Conte told Parry about “some strange trees.”

Parry went back to the Doctor business in Davenport, but he couldn’t stay put. He explored the Yellowstone country in 1873 and Mexico in 1878. He made a more civilized tour when he went to England. There he became friends with Britain’s great botanist, Sir Joseph Hooker. In 1883 he came back to San Diego. He saw that the trees he had discovered were “endangered” long before the word became fashionable.

Besides the Torrey Pine, C.C. Parry discovered many other plants. One of them was the beautiful yucca called “Our Lords Candle.” He named it Yucca whipplei for Lieutenant (later General) Amiel Weeks Whipple. Several plants were named for the doctor of Davenport. Pinus quadrifolia, the four needle piñon, was originally Pinus parryi. Its common name is still Parry piñon. Here at Torrey Pines we have the saxifrage Jepsonia parryi.

The grove of pines named for Parry is a woodsy place. It has more trees in a smaller area than anywhere else in the reserve. It also has the oldest Torrey pine that I know of.. Just 25 steps down from the top (60 up from the bottom) of the stairs you can see a wildly twisted and picturesque tree. Torrey pines are not long-lived trees but they are tough. After you get to the bottom, make a right. About 100 paces will take you right up to a very large Torrey pine. It seemed very old but everybody knew that another tree was older. A tree at the top of High Point was almost 400 years old. One day when nobody was looking, I took out my trusty increment borer. I drilled into both trees. I pulled out cores. I counted rings. The 400 year old tree was only 130. The one in Parry Grove was about 200 years old. That makes it the oldest Torrey pine I’ve located so far. I’ve cored other ancient looking trees all over the reserve. I believe I can say that I can count all the Torrey pines over 100 years old without taking off my shoes.

The Torrey pine has been called a “relict species.” Relict! I can barely pronounce it. Most botanists think that the Torrey pine is a survivor, maybe of a vast forest, maybe of a small one. It almost didn’t survive civilization. C.C. Parry himself made one of the first moves to save it when he added that we dedicate “this spot of ground forever to the cause of scientific instruction and recreation…”

In the spring the slope from the trail down to the edge of the cliff is a spectacular display of wildflowers. There are the usual lupines, poppies, tidy-tips, and groundsel. There’s a small field of shooting stars and pale yellow clematis climbing over the bushes.

You may see gritty, little inch-high mounds in the path. These were made not by inch-high gophers, but by solitary bees. You did know that not all bees live in hives. Of course you did. But why do they dig right in the middle of the trail? The female digs a hole. She drills side branches in which she lays eggs and in which she stocks food for her offspring. She dies. The mound is stomped by human feet. The eggs and, later, the larvae are safe underground. Up to a year later the next generation digs its way out and goes through the routine all over again.

One day I was walking along inspecting my size 13’s. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of winged termites were flowing out of a hole in the trail. There seemed to be no end to the cloud of insects. It was a great picture. Unfortunately my camera was back in the office. When I came back with it half an hour later the show was over. I’ve seen other termite colonies, but none was ever so striking.

Parry Grove is a quiet place. You can be alone on the busiest day of the year. The long, steep stairs may be the reason. Almost anyone is smart enough to figure out that if he walks down, he’ll have to walk back up later. Even most of joggers avoid the Parry Grove Trail. Don’t be scared off. The whole trip is less than half a mile, stairs included. It’s my favorite trail. Two laps around it will cure almost any case of blues.

Ed. note: Hank Nichol wrote the above essay before the Bark Beetle infestation of the 1980s destroyed many of the old trees in Parry Grove. The trail was closed for several years, but is now re-opened. Many new Torrey pines are thriving, and the spring wild flowers are still beautiful.