Torrey Pine Tree: The Ultimate Guide

torrey pine tree

Torrey Pines State Park, Torrey Pines Road, Torrey Pines Golf Course and Torrey Pines High School are just a few of the places in San Diego County that carry the name of this famous pine tree.

Though it’s one of San Diego’s icons, how much do you really know about it?

Here is your guide to the Pinus torreyana including information about growing one at home, if your property is big enough.

What Is the Torrey Pine?

A native plant to Southern California, the Torrey pine grows in two places naturally: Santa Rosa Island, a Channel Island off the coast of Santa Barbara, and a narrow strip of San Diego coastline, primarily in Del Mar. The tree grows in the coastal sage and chapparal ecoregion and is named for an American botanist, John Torrey.

The trees that grow on the island tend to be shorter and bushier and could be used as shade trees. However, in San Diego, Torrey pines are a bit more sparse and elegant in look. Unlike a Christmas tree, a Torrey pine has an open crown versus a pointed top. They have some of the longest pine needles of any pine tree (reaching up to 13 inches in length) that also grow in clusters of five.  The Torrey pine usually grows up to 60 feet tall, though sheltered conditions and frequent irrigation allow for more height.

torrey pine trees

Female pine cones grow on the top branches and can stay attached to trees for up to a decade. Toward the bottom, male cones produce pollen that is blown away by wind currents. Some pollen might rise up to pollenate the female cones but, oddly enough, this rarely happens as it usually travels to another tree. This feature promotes diversity and, therefore, maintains a healthy population.

Torrey pine cones produce hard-shelled nuts that were important food for San Diego’s native Kumeyaay people who used the long needles to weave baskets and tree sap to make glue and sealant.

Why Is it Unique?

The Torrey pine holds the title of rarest pine in the United States and it’s suspected that about 9000 of these trees grow in the wild. It can handle drought, wind and poor living conditions. Basically, they are stubborn trees that are unique to San Diego, specifically on a small strip of land between Del Mar and La Jolla. City ordinance protects the trees in Del Mar where permits are required to remove them.

Where to See a Torrey Pine?

Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve —

Torrey Pines state park

The best place to see a Torrey pine is at our own Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve where they grow abundantly in the wild. In the 1500s, Spanish sailors marked the area Punta de los Arboles as a reference point. Back then, trees were not commonly seen in our county’s dry coastal regions.

What is so interesting about the Torrey pine surviving in this habits is that it’s incredibly varied (from silt to sandstone) as a result of ocean water rising and falling over millions of years and several ice ages. The trees here are thought to be remnants of a larger natural forest though there aren’t fossil records to prove this.

The Channel Islands —

channel islands

The Channel Islands are a remote national park off the coast of Ventura and Santa Barbara. Day trips by boat are possible to Santa Rosa Island as are overnight camping stays. Because of extreme weather conditions, primarily wind, a visit isn’t for the faint-hearted. Plus, there are absolutely no goods and services on the island so you’ll need to bring your own supplies.

Carpinteria —

wardholme torrey pine

On your next road trip up the coast, stop in Carpinteria (just south of Santa Barbara) where the world’s biggest Torrey Pine tree resides. It’s said to have been planted in 1888 from a seedling brought over from Santa Rosa Island. This tree measures 136′ tall with a 20’5″ circumference and 130′ branch spread. The giant tree was declared Carpinteria’s first official landmark in 1968 and it’s easy to stop off the 101 freeway to have a look at it.

Can I Plant a Torrey Pine at Home?

Though they aren’t commonly sold at local nurseries, it is possible to buy 1 gallon and larger Torrey pines to add this special tree to your garden. Keep in mind that you must have the space for it as they are quite large with roots extending up to 200 feet in mature trees that could possibly damage your home’s foundation, patio (we don’t want to ruin those beautiful pavers or artificial turf) and sewer lines.

How to Plant a Torrey Pine —

Small Torrey pines will grow quickly. If the seedling is staked, remove it as Torrey pines don’t need the extra support. The most important factor to check is drainage. Dig a hole twice the size of the pot and fill it with water in order to see how quickly it drains. If it drains slower than 1/4″ per hour, consider a different location. If planting in clay soil, consider mixing in gypsum at the bottom of the hole to facilitate drainage.

Plant the tree and fill the hole in with the soil you dug out. Don’t use potting soil. The Torrey pine is a hearty plant that’s native to San Diego soil, even if it’s lacking in nutrients. Fertilizer won’t be required.

Watering a Torrey Pine Requires TLC —

Expect that your newly-planted Torrey pine won’t need watering outside of rainfall in about three years or so. A drip system will likely not be able to provide enough water to a new tree, while a sprinkler system will overwater it. Experts suggest a deep watering for the first two days after planting and then tapering off to three times per week for the first two weeks, twice a week for two weeks after that and then once a week for two months. Then water twice per month for about a year. Drop that back to once a month for the next two years or so and then stop watering completely. Do some research and be sure to check the tree for signs of stress (such as yellowing or browning of the needles) during the process.

Other Considerations —

torrey pine trees guide

Large Torrey pine branches can die back to the trunk if cut. Make sure to plant a Torrey pine in an area with full sunlight. The large root structure of a Torrey pine is often mistakenly thought of as helpful for erosion control. However, the reverse can be true. The giant roots are heavy, causing trees to topple off hillsides.

To find a Torrey pine, your best bet is to contact a native plant nursery, such as Las Pilitas in Escondido, for advice and to check availability. Currently, the Pinus torreyana is sold out online there. But, because it is a tree that can be purchased, the Torrey pine will live on even if it dies back in the wild.

 Your Turn…

Before reading this, how much did you actually know about the Torrey pine?

*Photo credits: top torrey pine, Flickr/H. Michael Arrighi; pine cones, Flickr/brewbooks; Torrey Pines state park, Flickr/danorth1; map, Wikimedia Commons; Wardholme tree, Flickr/tkksummers; ocean, Flickr/eggrole