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St. Louis arborists join national effort to save the Florida nutmeg tree

A seedling of the Torreya taxifolia, or the Florida nutmeg tree, at a private area in Tower Grove Park in December 2018.
Eli Chen | St. Louis Public Radio
Torreya taxifolia is commonly called the Florida nutmeg, the stinking yew or the stinking cedar. Tower Grove Park is one of three places the endangered tree was planted this year as a part of a national project to conserve them.

An endangered species of a Florida cedar tree is growing in St. Louis, where arborists are helping it recover from decades of blight.

Arborists at the Missouri Botanical Garden, Tower Grove Park and the Bellefontaine Cemetery have planted and are studying the Torreya taxifolia, an evergreen tree commonly known as the Florida nutmeg.

The three locations received seedlings from the Atlanta Botanical Garden, which has spearheaded a project to save the species.

Scientists estimate that fewer than 1,000 of the trees exist in the wild along the Apalachicola River in the Florida panhandle. Many have been infected by a fungus that prevents the Torreya taxifolia from growing and maturing, said Andy Berg, arboriculture manager at Tower Grove Park.

“So now all the mature ones are dying back and all we have are these stump sprouts,” Berg said.

Berg planted three seedlings this year in private areas in Tower Grove Park. He’s been monitoring their growth and tolerance of the St. Louis climate. Tower Grove Park is also home to few rare tree species, including the American chestnut.

A fungal blight began destroying most of the Florida nutmeg population in the 1950s. It became one of the first federally listed endangered plant species in 1984. Researchers are still trying to identify the pathogen behind it.

There are four Torreya taxifolia that live on the Missouri Botanical Garden’s property. The oldest one is in the English woodland garden. It’s a genetically unique species, very distantly related to other species of conifer trees, said James Miller, senior vice president of research and conservation at the garden.

“I’ve looked for this plant in the wild and I’ve never been able to find it,” Miller said.

Scientists don’t fully yet understand the Torreya taxifolia’s role in the environment, but like any living species, it deserves to be saved, said David Gunn, arborist at the Missouri Botanical Garden.

“Think of a Jenga puzzle. You can pull the pieces out, but you’re only allowed to pull so many pieces before things start to get unstable,” Gunn said. “We think Torreya is crucial, maybe because it’s a food source, but those relationships are still being explored. I think when you see that you’re starting to lose something, it’s in your interest to try to slow down that loss until you can understand better about what’s being lost.”

Follow Eli on Twitter: @StoriesByEli

Eli is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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