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What Hurricane Michael did to the torreya tree

The storm had some unintended — and devastating — consequences for a small but mighty endangered tree.
The endangered torreya tree at the Gregory House at Torreya State Park north of Bristol. [Special to the Times]
The endangered torreya tree at the Gregory House at Torreya State Park north of Bristol. [Special to the Times]
Published Oct. 3, 2019
Updated Oct. 9, 2019

“There is unrest in the forest; there is trouble with the trees ...” —“The Trees,” Neil Peart, Rush, 1978

Last year, I rescued a waffle plant from certain death. A collection of withered purple leaves stared up at me from rock-hard soil. Chalk it up to perimenopause, my handling stress in peculiar ways, a vein of a special kind of crazy running through my family, but I started to cry right there in the Walmart garden center. Even when the discount for “mostly dead plant” was only 10 percent, I still needed it.

“I couldn’t leave it there; no one else would buy it and it would just get thrown away,” I explained through sheepish tears to my husband, who has comforted me when a bird ate Dixie, our resident crab spider, and had learned that every insect in our Gulfport home gets a chance at a humane rescue and relocation.

“Did it press its nose against the window and wag its tail?” he asked.

I have a soft spot for underdog plants and animals. I’ve written before about my 17-year love affair with an Australian pine on the 7-Mile Bridge and how Fred — that’s his name, Fred — fared after Hurricane Irma. (Spoiler alert: He made it.)

Not every tree gets so lucky.

In my book Backroads of Paradise, I wrote about the torreya (rhymes with Gloria), a diminutive conifer listed as one of the most endangered on the planet. Half of the remaining torreya tree population exists within the confines of Torreya State Park north of Bristol. I wrote that the tree lived “one wildfire away from extinction.” I believed wildfire posed the largest threat to the tree’s existence. So did the park manager and conservationists.

Then Hurricane Michael happened.

The endangered torreya tree at the Gregory House at Torreya State Park north of Bristol. [CATHY SALUSTRI | Special to the Times]

At the onset, Michael looked like most tropical disturbances do in the late summer days the rest of the country calls autumn. Floridians know the drill, whether it comes from the local forecaster or an alert from the National Hurricane Center.

And Michael started just like that, but he wasn’t the same. He had sucked in what remained of Tropical Storm Kirk, with a center that formed and fell apart, formed and fell apart, then finally held. He bullied ahead, gaining steam and sucking in air and water until on Oct. 10 Michael came ashore at Tyndall Air Force Base roughly 70 miles southwest of Torreya State Park. He unleashed all that air and water on Mexico Beach first, drowning three people and pummeling the town’s 1,700 buildings, damaging all but 100 and destroying more than 800 before taking his wrath inland.

RELATED: Hurricane coverage from the Tampa Bay Times

Hurricanes should weaken as they move over land. Michael didn’t weaken enough. He was the Biff Tannen of hurricanes; instead of punching Florida once, he kept hitting. Meteorologists clocked the tormentor’s winds at 161 miles per hour; by the time he made it to Torreya — closer to Georgia than Mexico Beach — they had barely slowed. No one inland expected the brunt of Michael’s wrath; six months after his torture, homes near Torreya still have blue tarps.

“Heavy, 155 mile per hour winds that far inland?” said Torreya State Park’s manager Jason Vickery. “Unheard of.”

Michael stomped through the park, toppling the tallest trees. The Gregory House, an 1850s house Roosevelt’s “Tree Army” moved across Apalachicola and hoisted up the ravine to its current location surveying the river, resisted Michael’s brutality.

Many of the torreya trees could not.

Torreya taxiflora — also called the Florida Nutmeg, stinking cedar or gopherwood — stands, on a good day, 10 feet tall. It’s endemic to Liberty, Jackson and Gadsden counties in Florida and Decatur in Georgia. It grows mostly on the steep slopes of ravines of the Apalachicola River ecosystem.

B.E. (Before EuroAmericans), the torreya numbered 650,000. Shortly after the earliest settlers near Rock Bluff discovered the tiny, cheerful conifer in the 1830s, locals started cutting them down for fence posts, shingles and Christmas trees. By the mid-20th century, the minikin showed signs of failing.

The first harbinger? Blight caused by fungus. Scientists tried to treat it, but trees kept dying. In all, 12 different fungi assault the torreya, and in 2010, scientists discovered a new, deadly one: Fusarium torreyae, a strange canker-type fungi. Coupled with climate change, development and the construction of Lake Seminole as a result of the Woodruff Dam, the lilliputian tree battled the odds daily, pushing back against a world that didn’t seem to want it.

When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared Torreya taxiflora endangered in 1984, a scholarly article in Bartonia detailed the remaining trees: 20 by the Gregory House, two in Columbus, Ga., a dozen at Tallahassee’s Maclay Gardens. The writers estimated perhaps 100 wild torreyas remained.

And so conservationists created a plan to save the species. And as you might expect, it gave lots of consideration to wildfire.

It made no provisions for hurricane-force winds.

Unlike other pines, torreyas aren’t fire-dependent. They are, however, canopy-dependent. Those big trees that tower over them? Necessary for the smaller tree’s survival. This is no Rush song; in this forest, the trees work together.

Michael broke that relationship. The blustery brute didn’t rip out torreya; he took a far more devious path. He pushed over larger trees and they killed the torreya, crushing the scraggly trees that, a shadow of their pre-mid-century selves, had nevertheless survived.

In the early part of this millennium, you would have heard the phrase “global warming” used to explain the species’ decline. That’s when a new group, the Torreya Guardians, started assisted migration, moving seedlings north. Trees planted in cooler climates do better. Instead of twigs with a few needles, these northern trees flourish, their full branches making it understandable why 19th century Floridians envisioned them as Christmas trees.

The endangered torreya tree at Torreya State Park north of Bristol. [CATHY SALUSTRI | Special to the Times]

But assisted migration comes with no small amount of controversy. No one knows what torreyas will do in a new environment. Will they be the next kudzu? The conifer counterpart to the melaleuca? And most importantly, trees in cooler climes still contract Fusarium torreyae. The fungus could spread to other imperiled trees.

It’s almost a moot argument and a heart-shattering reality of climate change. Yes, the warming temperatures in the North Florida ravines stunt the growth of Torreya taxiflora, but at least it grows well out of reach of any perceived sea level rise, right? Even Michael didn’t dump floodwaters on the stunted pine trees.

Michael did much worse.

“Their whole habitat has changed,” Vickery said. “Eighty to 90 percent of the canopy is on the ground.” After the storm passed and rangers could make their way back to the park, they surveyed 288 trees. Eighteen percent of the trees that existed pre-Michael are dead or missing. Thirty-five trees died as a direct result of Hurricane Michael; 75 were directly impacted. “It was a catastrophic, unprecedented event,” Vickery said. “It was not foreseeable.”

And that’s the rub: Torreya taxiflora was already listed as “critically endangered” before Michael. Rangers have propped up some not-quite-dead trees as best they can, hoping they’ll survive. But even if they do? There’s no canopy to protect them; it’s deadfall, and with so much of it on the ground, wildfire is an issue. The remaining trees could vanish in an instant, stamped out like the flame at the end of a match.

The trees survived EuroAmericans, but barely. Now, life as they know it has changed once again.

Leigh Brooks helped found Torreya Keepers, a nonprofit that works with landowners to preserve the torreya’s genetic lines. She believes more torreyas may exist than we believe, but also said that estimates about how much time they have left are optimistic.

Torreya Keepers would like to find torreyas on private property.

“If a landowner thinks they might have torreyas, we’ll go out and document them,” Brooks said. Finding torreyas outside the park could make or break the species. Everyone wants to find a “buxom” tree, one with full branches and a thick trunk.

“For every one we find, we feel like champions. That’s potential genetics to add to the gene bank for the tree,” she said.

If the Keepers can get cuttings, they’ll send them to the Atlanta Botanical Gardens, where Emily Coffey, vice president of conservation and research, and her team want to grow healthy torreyas and see them flourish in the wild. Coffey’s team roots the cuttings the Keepers send. They have 542 cuttings total and each helps preserve genetic diversity.

A sign explaining the rare torreya tree at the Gregory House at Torreya State Park north of Bristol. [CATHY SALUSTRI | Special to the Times]

The plan, said Torreya State Park biologist Mark Ludlow, is to safeguard the tree from extinction. The hope is to one day reintroduce that nursery stock back onto the slope forest of the ravine. The hope, too, is that the tree can reproduce on its own — something it isn’t doing now.

Thanks to Fusarium torreyae, few trees reproduce on their own. Coffey said of the trees remaining in the wild, perhaps 15 produce cones. And these cones can make new trees, but not enough to sustain the population, making the tree functionally, reproductively extinct.

“They don’t get to reproductive size,” Ludlow said. The trees used to have trunks 12 to 15 inches in diameter, but today’s torreyas have trunks no bigger than a broomstick. That’s because the only trees growing are resprouting root stock.

Ludlow has never seen a torreya with a 12-inch trunk.

“They’re like California condors — an intensive care patient,” he said.

“Even the bigger ones,” Brooks said. “When we go back, they don’t look vigorous.”

A 22-foot-tall torreya did survive the storm, but that height isn’t the norm anymore.

“We get excited even to see a tree that’s 5 or 6 feet tall, but bushy,” Brooks says. “If the needles look good we get excited, even if it’s a runt.”

On Oct. 9, Torreya State Park had an estimated 420 trees. On Oct. 11, it had no more than 385, although Coffey suspects the real number falls closer to 370. Michael’s cruelty struck at the end of a 200-year struggle. Some estimate the torreya will go extinct in the wild by 2069; Brooks disagrees. She believes the tree that has charmed more than one biologist has less than a decade left on Earth.

Why is saving the tree important?

“Individual species matter,” Coffey said. “Biodiversity allows us to be resilient, adaptive and resourceful.”

Maybe we’re watching a dinosaur in its final days. After all, that Fusarium torreyae isn’t a nonnative fungus; it’s brand new. And it’s not like the long-leaf pine’s decimation, which impacted gopher tortoise and red-cockaded woodpeckers. If torreya trees disappeared tomorrow, as far as we know, it wouldn’t adversely affect other creatures.

Therein lies the rub: As far as we know. Once, the tree played a vital role in the Apalachicola River Basin, but no one knows how the tree supported — and may still help — the ecosystem.

Maybe the torreya has no place in this world, or maybe it does and we just don’t know what that purpose is yet. As Coffey said, “once you lose a species, you cannot go backwards.”

I glanced over at the waffle plant, new leaves stretching toward the eastern sun. It was trapped in a pot; it will never propagate. No animals needed this plant, no forests depended on it. It made no difference to anything else on the planet.

But it made a difference to me.

Cathy Salustri is the author of “Backroads of Paradise: A Journey to Rediscover Old Florida.” She lives in Gulfport. Contact her at cathysalustri@icloud.com. Follow @CathySalustri.

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