Relict Species: Torrey Pine

Relict, n: a remnant or survivor.

Species, n: a distinct sort or kind

Torrey Pine (Pinus torreyana)

The Torrey Pine is North America’s rarest pine tree, growing only on two bluffs in San Diego County, with a separate population growing on Santa Rosa Island of the Channel Islands. The geographic separation of the two populations suggests that the trees were once wide-spread, covering much of Southern California’s sage-scrub community. Due to long term climate change and, more recently, to suburban development, the Torrey Pine is now restricted to its current sites, where it grows naturally amidst a busy corner of San Diego.

The Torrey Pine is related to the Coulter and Digger Pines, which typically favor hotter, dryer climates than most pine trees. These pine trees also have the largest cones of any pines, which appears to be a hallmark of pines growing in dry climates. Typically, the dryer the climate, the larger the pine cone. The Coulter pine features the largest, heaviest cone of them all. The Torrey’s smaller cone shrinks in comparison, although it still maintains a strong resemblance.

Torrey Pine cone

Coulter Pine Cone
The Torrey Pine lives in one of the dryer sections of coastal California. This habitat, which is referred to as the coastal sage-scrub community, features mostly small to large shrubs that have adapted to alternating seasonal drought and modest rainfall. The Torrey has adapted to this climate in a number of ways. Its needles are among the longest of all pines. On the inside of these needles, which are grouped in fives, one will find a groove that conducts water from the tip to the branch, and then again into the tree. The needles are grouped closely together, often so much so that the needles arrange a straw that can suck in as much moisture as possible. While rainfall here is modest, fog is abundant. Therefore, the Torrey Pine can drink in moisture from the regular coastal fogs, allowing it to survive in the dry environment.

The Torrey Pines root system also shows a brilliant adaptation. While the Torrey Pine attains a modest height in comparison to most other pine trees (about 50-60′), its root systems can extend into the earth nearly five times as deep as the tree is tall. This means that a 50′ tree may have a taproot that extends down 250′ to reach the saturated water table fed into the Penasquitos Lagoon by Penasquitos Creek, which flows year round. 

Additionally, the Torrey Pine does not stand up straight and narrow the way other pines tend to stand. Classic pines, like the Ponderosa, Sugar, and Jeffrey pines found in local mountains, stand up straight and narrow in response to competition from other tall trees, as well as to narrow the amount of area upon which snow can accumulate – and potentially snap off branches. 

Ponderosa Pines at Palomar Mountain State Park

The Torrey Pine has no competition, and snow is non-existent on the coast. Instead, the Torrey Pine grows in a similar fashion to oak trees, which have a modest trunk but a number of large branches spreading in all directions. This “branching out” enables the tree to maximize its sun exposure, and in the Torrey Pine’s case, this adaptation increases the amount of water vapor that the tree can pull out of the fog. The tree’s preferred locale, high atop coastal bluffs that receive plenty of fog, has encouraged the tree to branch out into fantastic shapes.

The Torrey Pine has become an icon of San Diego, with its name attached to communities, golf courses, schools, and parks. However, reverence for this tree wasn’t always a given. Conservationists like Guy Fleming, who, along with Ellen Scripps (yes, that Scripps), encouraged conservation of the pines in the face of the development of, among other things, a golf course and extravagantly expensive homes in Del Mar Heights. 

One can still visit the remaining Torrey Pines, of which about 2,000 remain in a natural state, at the two reserves near La Jolla and Del Mar. The larger reserve is the more popular, and it includes the beach, bluffs that come to life with wildflowers in the spring, and expansive ocean views. The smaller Reserve Extension is less traveled and features some hidden gems, including a great hilltop rest area from which one can watch the sun set into the Pacific. 

There is one other grove of Torrey Pines that is much less accessible and well known. This particular version is considered a separate variation of the same species, and it is only found at Santa Rosa Island off the coast of Santa Barbara. There are approximately 1,000 trees growing here in a small grove. If you want to see them, you’ll have to charter a flight out of Camarillo Airport and hike for miles to see them.


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