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Odd Tree Out

Nature must love mysteries. Why else would it have so many? Some of them are huge, like how the earth evolved. Some are small, like how individual species adapt to a changing environment. Nature in Anderson Valley has contracted in recent centuries due to fire, logging, agriculture and mankind’s other activities, but still holds mysteries waiting to be found. One recent discovery for me has been a native tree, once lost and now found.

I’ve walked my family’s corner of Anderson Valley near Philo for six decades now; on roads, on trails, along various watercourses, and cross country. Sometimes I’ve been surprised by the size of a particular tree or the color of a mushroom, but rarely have I found something entirely new.

In the early 2000s, I explored an old, eroding skid road on a steep slope in the woods west of Philo. Within a minute, I encountered two trees of a sort I’d never seen before. Perhaps four feet tall, these little conifers vaguely resembled a coast redwood, but with needles that were longer, stiffer, shinier and sharply pointed at the tips. The bark was different as well; gray and fine rather than red and coarse.

Though surprised to find a new variety of tree after years of tramping through local forest, I didn’t bother to research what variety of tree I’d found. For no particular reason (it bore no resemblance to the real thing), I called it a Chinquapin. Perhaps two years later, I went back to the old skid road to look for the trees. I was sure I was in the right spot, but they were nowhere to be found. It was as if they were never there.

My Anderson Valley wilderness walks continued – even increased – over the next 12 years, but the odd tree with the sharp needles remained a ghost and a mystery. Then, early this year, walking cross country in a location approximately a quarter-mile from the original discovery, I found a lone example. Then another. Then, perhaps 100 feet downslope, two more. All were small – from three to six feet tall – but they were definitely the tree I had seen nearly 15 years ago.

I took a small section of branch home and dug out my old (copyright 1966) copy of Trees & Tree-Like Shrubs of the Mendocino Coast by Jacques Helfer, published in Ukiah by Panpipes Press. There it was on page 9: my mystery tree was a California nutmeg, Torreya californica.

With the identity in hand, I searched the internet for more information. First, California nutmeg is not a true nutmeg, but is related to the yew. Second, this is a very old tree genus, one that has lived on the planet for more than 150 million years. Third, it was used by Native Americans in various ways: the roots for basket weaving, the wood for bows, the seeds (roasted) as food and the needles for tattooing (having punctured myself with one a few days later, I can attest to this potential use).

The biggest surprise was discovering the California nutmeg is a legitimately rare tree. It is native only to the California Coast Range and the Sierra Foothills, and grows only in small, scattered locations. Logging has eliminated many of the larger examples and deforestation has reduced the tree population.

The tree is so rare, there is a website detailing its distribution. In Mendocino County, it is found mostly on the western slopes of Cow Mountain and in the hills east of Albion, Mendocino and Fort Bragg. In Anderson Valley, examples were found at Cold Springs Lookout on Signal Mountain in 1981, along Mountain View Road in 1963 and south of Fish Rock Road in 1977.

And now west of Philo in 2018. However, a mystery remains. All the California nutmeg trees I saw were young. Where are the adult trees whose seeds produced these youngsters? California nutmeg seeds are large (about the size of a big olive, according to the internet) and heavy. The parent tree(s) must have been nearby, but I didn’t see one. I hope to find an adult California nutmeg someday. I just hope it doesn’t take another 14 years!

California nutmeg twig, collected a week earlier and somewhat dry.


  1. George Hollister April 11, 2018

    Another local conifer, related to nutmeg, and less seen, is pacific yew.

  2. Marshall Newman April 12, 2018

    Mr. Hollister is correct – the Pacific Yew also grows here. Perhaps not rarer than the California Nutmeg, but certainly rare in Mendocino County.

    • George Hollister April 12, 2018

      I see nutmegs quite regularly. They tend to be found on rocky soils, often on South facing slopes. They are slow growers. If a person could grow nutmegs on better soil, so they grew faster, and pruned them, they would be a very valuable commercial tree species. Nutmeg is like redwood, and sprouts from the stump after being cut. The wood, to me, has a strong, lasting, cinnamon fragrance. Boxes, like cedar boxes, are a potential product that could be manufactured from the wood. Just yesterday, I saw what looked like a young nutmeg seedling. From past experience, they are easy to transplant.

    • George Hollister April 12, 2018

      BTW, if you are interested in adult nutmeg trees, come to Comptche, I will show you a few. And I suggest logging or the lack of logging has nothing to do with their rarity, despite what some books says. These adult trees are tough. They will live in the understory, or out in the open. If you find one adult, there are more in the vicinity. The wood is also very decay resident. I have found many years long dead adult trees with sound hear wood. Also, there was an export market for this wood, about 30 years ago. Brian Clark knows about that. The largest nutmeg I have heard of was stolen from Jackson Demonstration State Forest during this time period, near the Woodlands. That tree was in excesses of 3 feet in diameter. A nutmeg, that size is unheard of, and back then was likely worth in then tens of thousands of dollars.

      I worked one day, long ago, on private land in the Garcia Watershed, out Mountain View Road assisting in logging some nutmeg. My guess is there are still nutmeg trees in that spot. The terrain was the worst for logging I have ever experienced. Made me appreciate getting home again.

  3. Malcolm Macdonald April 12, 2018

    There are nutmegs here on the Macdonald Ranch as well as examples of Pacific Yew. Many more nutmegs are scattered near the Albion, both forks. The cutting down of nutmeg occurred primarily in the early 1950s, during the Masonite era, ostensibly to make room for small redwoods to grow. Masonite’s forestry practices were often at cross purposes. While they cut down relatively benign competition to redwoods like nutmeg (and other species)they also planted twenty to forty acre “plantations” of eucalyptus, which had no practical timber value and increased fire danger.

    • George Hollister April 13, 2018

      We laugh now, but there was a time when the thought was the future in forestry was chips; Chips for paper, chips for reformulated timbers, chips for fiber,chips for panels, and chips for lumber like products. The thought at the time was second growth redwood was worthless. So Masonite experimented planting eucalyptus and pine for chips for their plant in Ukiah. All that is really not so funny, but there is some truth there. Chips are big today, all over the world. The problem is, there is little (no) money in growing trees for chips. The available world resource is vastly large, and growing. Of course this is part of the forever theme that there is no future for second growth redwood. No one told that to the trees that just keep growing, or to people who like the wood for all it’s various purposes.

      The good part of planting eucalyptus is it demonstrated that people were willing to experiment in forestry, something almost entirely missing these days. The only way we advance is to experiment, meanwhile knowing that experiments are likely to fail.

      I would bet the redwoods on those nutmeg sites did poorly. Where I see lots of nutmeg, the big timber doesn’t grow well.

    • George Hollister April 13, 2018

      An addition, interesting your property has Pacific Yew. I seldom see it. I have never seen it in the Albion Watershed. In Big River, yes. Most foresters I know have never seen it. Yews successfully live in the understory. It is likely, there were many more before the initial logging. They grow where the big timber grows.

  4. John Scharffenberger April 13, 2018

    There are a fair number of Nutmeg trees that have “old growth” characteristics in the drainage of Indian Creek on its north facing slopes off Peachland Road. Many are on the old Libeau ranch. They are often 40′ tall and produce seed. Seedlings are present on these slopes but not numerous. .

    Also in this drainage are some Pacific Yew. They have very similar growth characteristics with slightly shorter needles that are not quite as sharp. I saw one on Parkinson Gulch that had some of its bark removed- this bark is quite valuable as the source of the anti-cancer agent Taxol. Good thing for this species that a synthetic source has been found as the trees are under threat from pirate bark harvesting all over the Pacific Northwest.

    • George Hollister April 13, 2018

      Good, that a synthetic source for Taxol has been found. I did not know that. Because of the outlaw bark harvesting, I have made it a point to be discreet about disclosing the locations I have seen Pacific Yew. I have also seen trespass bark harvesting locally. Someone or ones, with the eye for yew, have been clandestinely cruising our forests looking for it.

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