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Torreya State Park: A Botanical Paradise
by Jody Haynes

Nestled along the Apalachicola River in the big-bend region of the Florida panhandle is a botanical gold mine known as Torreya State Park. Comprising only 2,500 acres, the park is home to more than 600 plant species in 129 families, including more rare plants per acre than any other area in Florida--and perhaps in the southeastern U.S. Much of this plant diversity results from the wide range in elevation and the park's unique geography resembling foothills of the Appalachian Mountains--which together have allowed for the evolution of such distinct and diverse habitats as swamps, floodplains, ravine slopes, hardwood hammocks, and high pinelands.

Among the 28 designated (rare, threatened, or endangered) plant species in the park are three very interesting endemics: two representatives of the yew family, Taxaceae--the Florida yew tree, Taxus floridana, and the torreya or gopherwood tree, Torreya taxifolia (from which the park gets its name)--and the Apalachicola wild indigo, Baptisia megacarpa. Also on the designated plant list are two ferns, two magnolias, a hydrangea, an azalea, and an orchid (see Table 1). The park also contains substantial populations of three of the four palms native to this region of Florida, two common--the saw palmetto, Serenoa repens (Fig. 1), and the dwarf palmetto, Sabal minor (Fig. 2)--and one not-so-common--the glorious needle palm, Rhapidophyllum hystrix (Fig. 3), which is the sole reason I sought out Torreya State Park.

Table 1. Designated plant species of Torreya State Park.

Common name/scientific name

Designated species status

FDA

USFWS

FNAI

Canada honewort
     Cryptotaenia canadensis
Heartleaf
     Hexastylis arifolia
Orange azalea
     Rhododendrum austrinum
Apalachicola wild indigo
     Baptista megacarpa
Wild hydrangea
     Hydrangea arborescens
Ashe's magnolia
     Magnolia ashei
Pyramid magnolia
     Magnolia pyramidata
White baneberry
     Actaea pachypoda
Marianna columbine
     Aquilegia canadensis
Buckthorn bumelia
     Bumelia lycioides
American bladdernut
     Staphylea trifolia
Florida yew
     Taxus floridana
Torreya tree
     Torreya taxifolia
Baltzell's sedge
     Carex baltzellii
Narrow-leaved trillium
     Trillium lancifolium
Green adder's-mouth
     Malaxis unifolia
Croomia
     Croomia pauciflora
Southern maidenhair fern
     Adiantum capillus-veneris
Incised groove-bur
     Agrimonia incisa
Sweetshrub
     Calyanthus floridus
Florida spiny-pod
     Matela floridana
Needle palm
     Rhapidophyllum hystrix
Bay star-vine
     Schisandra coccinea
Bladdernut
     Staphylea trifolia
Silky camellia
     Stewartia malacodendron
Crane-fly orchid
     Tipularia discolor
Wood's false hellebore
     Veratum woodii
Royal fern
     Osmunda regalis
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My quest for needle palms in habitat began several months ago when my wife and I were visiting some friends in Havana, FL, near Tallahassee. Not knowing much about the needle palm, I thought the area around their home looked like prime needle palm habitat. On my first trek through the woods in the area, I came across a small stand of Sabal minor--which was a first for me, so I was excited--but I never found Rhapidophyllum. During our second trip to Havana a couple months later, I photographed Serenoa repens and flowering Sabal minor, but once again saw no needle palms.

Luckily, our third trip to Havana was much more productive--but only because I finally broke down and asked someone at the Tallahassee Natural History Museum if they knew where I might find needle palms in habitat. The kind gentleman told me that he was the animal person on the premises and that he didn't know anything about needle palms. When I pointed out a beautiful needle palm specimen just outside the museum office, he told me that it was planted by the folks at Native Nurseries of Tallahassee and that they would likely know where to look.

So my friend, Jeff, and I set off to Native Nurseries where, of course, we could find neither owner. But the nursery was open and so I spoke to one of the workers in the office. She seemed to be quite informed on the subject and told us that the best place to see needle palms was in Torreya State Park, about 30 miles to the South. As it was late afternoon, I bought a nice triple needle palm specimen (and a couple of other plants to appease my wife) and we called it a day.

The following day, Jeff and I arose early, grabbed a cup of coffee, and headed out for Torreya. It was a beautiful day and we had a nice, quiet, 45-minute drive from Havana to the park on backroads. Immediately after entering the park and paying our $2 entrance fee (at the unmanned pay station), I spotted the first needle palm. I yelled at Jeff to stop the truck and we got out and took some photos. The adult plants were small (Fig. 4), but they were reproducing, as was evident by the numerous seedlings in the area (Fig. 5).

We continued up the road until we came upon a spectacular historical home (Fig. 6), which we later found out was called the Gregory House--and which also contained the park office. Jeff and I introduced ourselves to Paul Rice, the Park Mananger, and inquired about needle palms. He informed us of the best place to see them and we headed off toward the trail, but were stopped in our tracks by a magnificent view of the Apalachicola River and the surrounding countryside about 200 feet below (Fig. 7). We took photos, of course, then found the Rock Creek Trail and began to descend into a deep, dark ravine, wherein we saw dozens of large needle palms, many of which were in flower (Figs. 8-10). In contrast to the first place we stopped, which was a hillside, it was interesting to note that there were very few seedlings in the ravine.

The site of these spectacular palms was truly awe-inspiring! After shooting many photos, we continued on along the trail and came upon a small, lone torreya tree (Fig. 11), a sign describing the needle palm (Fig. 12), and several confederate gun pits from the Civil War. The winding trail then led us down to the banks of the Apalachicola (Fig. 13) and further on along the floodplain. It was here that I witnessed the second stunning site of this adventure: across a swamp full of Sabal minor was a hillside literally covered with Rhapidophyllum (Fig. 14). We took more photos and climbed the ascending trail back to the Gregory House, where we decided to go check out the grotto waterfall.

The Weeping Ridge Trail had a very different feel to it; it was drier and ascended steeply toward a ridge dominated by pines, rather than large, deciduous trees. The other thing that was readily apparent was the paucity of needle palms along the ridge. It appeared that Sabal minor didn't seem to mind the habitat shift, however, because there were many plants reproducing in this area (Fig. 15). After about 10 minutes of climbing and then a few more minutes descending back down the ridge, we came upon the waterfall. This was the most intriguing waterfall either Jeff or I had ever witnessed, as the water trickled out of the side of the hill, dropped about 20 feet, and then disappeared back into the hill. Ironically--but not coincidentally--the wet area just above the waterfall was home to a needle palm that was precariously perched on a ledge (Fig. 16). Further down the ravine, we came across a log "bridge" and, like a typical kid, Jeff just couldn't help but cross over (Fig. 17).

Our trip concluded with a personal tour of the Gregory House (thanks again, Paul), which could be the basis for an article unto itself. The drive home was relativley uneventful, as Jeff and I were still somewhat numbed by the happenings of the day. Needless to say, our experiences in Torreya State Park will not be forgotten. I want to personally thank you for taking the time to read about our wonderful Torreya expedition. If you are ever in the North Florida area, be sure to visit the park; you will not be disappointed. It truly is a botanical paradise!

Jody Haynes
23 May 1999

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