The Torrey pine (Pinus torreyana) is recognized as being the rarest species of pine tree in North America, occurring in just two widely separated locations along the coast of California. One of these populations is located in the Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve on the coast in the northern part of the city of San Diego. The other population is located in two groves on Santa Rosa Island in Channel Islands National Park, some 175 miles across the Pacific Ocean to the northwest from the San Diego population.
Torrey pines have broad, spreading crowns, unlike the "classic" pine growth form of a single trunk with branches spreading from it. Mature trees vary in height from 26 to 56 feet (8 to 17 m), and the needles occur in clusters of five, and reach lengths of 10 to 12 inches (25 to 30 cm). The cones are stout and heavy, and almost spherical in shape with a diameter of 3 to 6 inches (8-15 cm) containing large, hard-shelled and edible pine nuts.
These disjunct populations are likely the remnants of a much more continuous range for this species that existed during the last ice age. They are also evidence of the awesome tectonic forces that have shaped the coast of California as we know it today.
Over the past 20 million years, the collision of the northwest moving Pacific Plate with the westward moving North American Plate has completely reshaped the coast of North America from what is now Point Conception down along the coast of Baja California. The movement that occurred during this period of time can be seen in an animation on University of California Santa Barbara Department of Earth Science's website here. Beyond the geological processes involved, the impact these movement had on species can be found in their distribution today. At the start of the animation, notice the proximity of the areas labelled SB (Santa Barbara) and SD (San Diego) and the irregular black outlines between them. As the animation plays, notice where those irregular black outline end up. They represent the present day northern Channel Islands of San Miguel, Santa Cruz, and Santa Rosa. At one time they were connected to what is now San Diego, and likely supported populations of Torrey pines. The movement of the Earth's crustal plates carried them to a new location, creating a widely separated distribution of populations.
It is possible that Torrey pines existed over a broad range along the coast of southern California at one time. Changes in geology and climate apparently worked to eliminate this species from all but these two remaining places in the world today. Torrey pines are grown widely as ornamental trees, but the only place you can find wild natural populations today is near San Diego, and on Santa Rosa Island of the coast of California.
Today's photo was taken from one of the Torrey pine groves on Santa Rosa Island. The path and the ocean beyond are framed by Torrey pines.
This photo was taken with a Canon EF 17-40 mm f/4L USM lens zoomed to 40 mm on a Canon EOS 5D Mk III. The exposure was set to 1/125 sec at f/16 and ISO 400.
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