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Photo credit: James Huizenga, UCCE San Diego Master Gardener.
The Torrey pine can only be found on the San Diego County mainland and on Santa Rosa Island.

By Helen Purcell Montag.

In Southern California there are two small remnants of “relic pine forests” that precede the Glacial Period.  Trees in these forests were well established on our southern coast long before the separation of the offshore islands from the mainland. They are the Torrey pines, unique in all the world in that they can only be found on the mainland of San Diego County and on Santa Rosa Island.

Photo credit: James Huizenga, UCCE San Diego Master Gardener.
Trees at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve.

Imagine it is the middle of the 19th century in Southern California and you are traveling with a group of botanists on a survey expedition.  One of them would have been Charles Christopher Parry (1823-1890).  It is 1850, and your group is observing everything about the physical world that surrounds you, including the beautiful pine trees in the area.  The Torrey pine was already known to the Kumeyaay and early settlers in the area for its pinon nut which was hard, but edible and an important source of food for the Kumeyaay tribe. 

Parry is the botanist who is considered to have “discovered” the Torrey pine since he officially named it Pinus torreyana, after his friend and botanist colleague, John Torrey.  Aside from the honor of naming a new species, we owe Parry our appreciation for his recognition that the Torrey pine was “endangered” as early as 1883.  Parry wrote to the San Diego Society of Natural History of the need to protect them.  We also owe a debt of gratitude to San Diego resident and visionary Ellen Browning Scripps.  In the early 1900s, she purchased the land where most of the trees stood, now designated as Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, and where they continue to survive on the windblown, sandstone cliffs.  Without her efforts, the Torrey pine might have disappeared forever.

Next time you see a Torrey Pine, imagine that you are on that survey expedition, sent to examine the tree's characteristics. Looking around, you notice a cluster of trees, medium-sized evergreen pines, with open spreading crowns on branches.  You notice how they are leaning in various directions, with crowns sprawling to the leeward side.  They are growing in a contorted manner because of the exposure to the winds and salt spray coming from the ocean below.

Walk closer and look at the cones.  The woody female cones which bear the seeds grow in the upper branches, while the herbaceous pollen bearing male cone spikes grow in the limbs lower down. The female cone is chocolate-color with thick scales and ends in a triangle with a point.  They may take as long as three years to fully mature.  Most of the trees will be 40 to 60 feet tall with a trunk diameter from one to two feet.  Looking up you’ll see that the Torrey pine has needles in bundles.  It’s the only pine tree in the area that has leaves comprised of five-needle bundles.

Photo credit: James Huizenga.
A favorite picture of the many Torrey pines that Master Gardener, James Huizenga, has started in his greenhouse. "It’s amazing how the seedling needles collected the mist!" - James Huizenga

The bark is deeply furrowed, brown and reddish.  Many Torrey pines grow from rocky cliffs and outcroppings, putting down a long taproot and elaborate system of roots. A Torrey pine that measures 40 feet high may have a 200-foot-long network of roots.  The tree is usually found 600-800 feet above sea level on rocky or sandy slopes.  It adapts easily to poor soil, withstands droughts, and is dependent on the fog that comes in from the ocean.  Those long and sculpted needles work to condense the fog into droplets which fall to the ground, providing additional moisture during the dry summer months.

Fast forward from the mid-19th century to today.  Your daily routine has been turned upside down.  You’ve been staying in place, avoiding crowds, washing your hands, wearing a mask and donning gloves.  For months you’ve been thinking about all the things you miss. If you’re an outdoor enthusiast, you want to visit San Diego’s many beautiful gardens and nature trails.  A few suggestions, be sure to enjoy a visit to the San Diego Botanic Garden, where you’ll see a canopy of Torrey pines planted in the 1950s by landowners and residents Ruth and Charles Larabee.  Not to be missed is a visit to the Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, where you’ll find trails that wind through old groves of Torrey pines which open up to spectacular ocean vistas with cactus and low sage scrub vegetation. This is San Diego at its park-visiting and nature-hiking best!

For up-to-date information on the opening of trails at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, go to:

For up-to-date information on the opening of San Diego Botanic Garden, go to:


Helen Purcell Montag is an active UC Master Gardener who also enjoys history, genealogy and speaking Spanish.

Photo credits: James Huizenga, UCCE San Diego Master Gardener.


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