Racing to Save the Last American Gopher Wood Trees

A Torreya infected with fusarium fungus.  Photo: Brian Kahn, Gizmodo Media

A dedicated team of scientists from the Atlanta Botanical Garden and local volunteers in the Florida Panhandle is racing to save the 750 or so “gopher wood” trees that remain in the U.S. According to Earther, religious scholars have long searched for the tree that Noah used to construct his arc — Genisis 6:14 says it was from “gopher wood.”  Its real name is torreya taxifolia, it is known as Torreya or as a “stinking cedar” because of the astringent smell it releases when needles and stems are rolled between the fingers.  The tree was already endangered and struggling to survive but its chances got much worse after Hurricane Michael blew through and toppled canopy trees that either crushed the shaggy torreyas or exposed them to harsh sunlight, which can kill them.

  • The trees are not very commercially valuable — they had been used more than 100 years ago to fire boilers of steamboats passing through the Apalachicola River or to make sturdy fence posts.
  • The Torreyas began to die off mysteriously in the early 1900s, when there were 375,000 in the area, and eventually, scientists attributed its decline to an invasive fungus from Asia.
  • The scientists are also collecting clippings of the trees to bring back to Atlanta to the Garden’s labs and greenhouses, where they can try to grow new Torreyas in greenhouses, which could be the only way to ensure their continued existence.

The team is using a mix of mapping, genome sequencing, and other conservation techniques to find strong trees that are capable of surviving in an increasingly inhospitable habitat.  If the scientists are successful, this project could provide a model for how to protect forests around the world from increasingly formidable threats of climate change and invasive pests.

Why This Matters:  The story of the Torreya is not uncommon — many tree species have already become extinct.  As Earther concluded, “Forests everywhere have been hit hard by various combinations of diseases and pests as humans have ushered invaders around the world. Climate change has added further stress on ecosystems already being pushed to the brink.”  Emily Coffey, vice president of conservation and research at the Atlanta Botanical Garden, told Earther what motivates her painstakingly hard work on the Torreya: “If we don’t do anything, the trees will go extinct.”  Next year’s meeting of the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity in China will focus on how to take efforts like this one to scale so that we can save as many endangered species as possible by 2030.  Amen – saving the biblical gopher tree is definitely a higher purpose.

Emily Coffey of the Atlanta Botanical Garden in the uplands of North Florida   Photo: Brian Kahn, Gizmodo Media

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