The Torrey Pine


Photo by Todd Nordness

From Nature Notes by Hank Nichol

Torrey pine trees are the rarest native pines in the United States. If you take the Torrey pine growing in one small grove on Santa Rosa Island as being distinct, that tree could possibly be the rarest pine of all. The Torrey pine is two trees. The subspecies growing on Santa Rosa Island off the coast of Santa Barbara is obviously different. The island tree, Pinus torreyana spp. insularis, grows shorter, broader, and bushier. It could actually be used as a shade tree. Our local tree gives only sparse shade. Insularis bark is thicker and scalier. Its cones are rounder.

However, many botanists think that Pinus dalatensis is the rarest pine in the world. This tree grows on two hills near Dalat, Vietnam, and it was discovered only in 1960. Another candidate for rarest is Pinus rzedowskii. It is a white pine which was discovered in Michoacan in 1968. It is named for Dr. Jersy Rzedowski, a professor of botany at, would you believe, the University of Mexico? Then there’s the Pinus maximartinezii. This five-needled piñon has the largest seeds of any known pine. It was discovered in Zacatecas by Professor Rzedowski in 1963. He named it for his friend, Dr. Maximo Martinez, also of the University of Mexico. There could be other species of pine out there waiting to be discovered.

Having five needles is a common characteristic of white pines. Some old books list the Torrey pine among the white pines because it is five-needled. The piñons were put in with the yellow pines because they don’t have five needles (one of them does, but it wasn’t discovered till later). But the Torrey pine is not a white pine, and the piñons are not yellow pines. The designations “white” and “yellow” have to do with the color of the wood. The terms are inaccurate, unscientific, and make botanist see red. Pines with one vascular bundle running through the needle are called “haploxylon.” (These are the whites.) Those with two vascular bundles are “diploxylon” (yellow, if you must). The Torrey pine has two. Only a few other diploxylon pines are five-needled. The others, including the beautiful Montezuma pine, are all relatives, and all are from Mexico and/or Guatemala.

Pine trees do not have flowers. This has been explained forcefully to me on several occasions. Pines have “strobili” which serve the same purpose. You can call them “flowers” if you want to. I do. The Torrey pine blooms early, usually in February, sometimes in January. The female blossom forms high in the tree. It looks like a miniature red cone. Flowers of other species of pines may be blue or purple. The separate male blossom grows in a lower branch. It sheds its light pollen which floats in a yellow fog. This coats the conelet, which then tries to grow into a real cone. There are many more of these than the tree can possibly support. Some will abort this year. Some will abort next year. Some of them will never grow at all. In most species of pine the cones mature in two years. The Torrey pine takes three. Only one other pine that I know of is this slow. That is Pinus pseudostrobus of southern Mexico and Guatemala. This “false white pine” also has five needles. Some think that it, or one of its variations, the Oaxaca Pine, is the direct ancestor of the Torrey, the Montezuma, the Digger, and the Coulter pines.

The seeds of the Torrey pine are edible nuts. These are larger than those of all but one rare piñon. They are also much harder. You could break your teeth trying to eat them. The same could be said for the nuts of the Coulter and Digger pines. The Italian and Swiss stone pines are named for their edible stones. You could say that all pine seeds are edible, but many of them are too small for humans to bother with.

The Torrey pine cone drops most of its seeds during the autumn of its third season. The cone will stay on the tree, and some of the seeds will stay in the cone until it falls in two, three, or ten years. There are two seeds under each scale of a cone. An average cone of a Torrey pine will have about 100 seeds. The giant Coulter pine cone can have twice that many. Pines have winged seeds. The purpose of a wing is to carry the seed away with the wind. A Torrey pine has a very large seed with a very small wing. The only utility I can see in this is that the wing is like the fins on a bomb. It may aim the seed straight down and help it spear through the duff and into the soil. It seems as though a lot of Torrey pines are planted by scrub jays. A jay with a full crop buries a seed for later. The bird brain forgets where he hid it. If the seed avoids the attention of rodents, it could possibly germinate.

A six-inch Torrey pine seedling* can have a taproot two or three feet long. This will grow down rapidly, then branch out when it reaches bedrock. The roots will go anywhere they can find a little water and a little nutrient. By the time a tree is 40 feet high it may have roots reaching out 200 feet. We usually think of tree roots as preventing erosion. Sometime roots can cause erosion. A tree can give the appearance of growing out of solid rock. Its roots have followed a crack. If the fissure is near a cliff, the growing, swelling root system flakes off the edge and causes a minor landslide. You can see these mats of roots in many places along the cliffs. A slide can cause an occasional upside-down Torrey pine. One of these can sometimes remain alive for many years.

You may read or hear stories of a vast forest of Torrey pines growing from Ensenada to Santa Barbara. Once I read of a fossilized bundle of Torrey pine needles found in Oregon. Personally I think anyone would have a very hard time proving that the local Torrey pine, Pinus torreyana ever grew any further away than La Jolla or Solana Beach. Naturally, that is. You can plant a Torrey pine anywhere. In any reasonable climate it will grow.

What is special about a Torrey pine? It’s not the rarest pine in the world. The Dalat pine is. It isn’t even the rarest tree in California. That’s the Monterey cypress. The Torrey pine doesn’t grow to a great size like a redwood. It doesn’t grow to a great age like a bristlecone pine. It isn’t known for excellent lumber like a sugar pine. Torrey pine wood is brittle, rots easily, and doesn’t even make a good fire. The Torrey pine doesn’t even have the dubious distinction of being endangered. So, “what’s special about a Torrey pine?” The Torrey pines along the sea cliffs suffer from persistent drought. Their roots are growing in poor sand which can hardly be called “soil.” The trees are blasted by storms and cooked in the sun. Some trees die, but the species lives stubbornly on. Some trees, like some people, develop character during hard times. That’s what I think is special about the Torrey pine…, character!


* Time lapse photos (two and then one per day over a 7 month period) of germinating Torrey pine seeds can be seen at YouTube.