ing corn for white lightning in the 1930s, Johnston is cultivating a half-dozen Torreya taxifolia seedlings he bought, legally,
from a nursery in South Carolina. Each is about two feet high,
>ve years old, and healthy.
Johnston, whose isolated property is full of other rare plants
(“I’m moving all sorts of things north,” he jokes) is pleased by
the apparent ?exibility of his charges, and nonchalant about the
implications of assisted migration. “People have been moving
largest stands on a farm in northeastern North Carolina, surrounded by rusting farm equipment.
Alexander, who traces his family back to some of the >rst
European settlers in the Biltmore area, is no ecosaboteur, but he
likes the democratic, do-it-yourself approach of the Torreya
Guardians, and he wants to see the species survive, no matter
its longitude and latitude. He says he’ll happily supply seeds to
the group as long as the Biltmore trees continue to produce.
What if assisted migration is used to justify new habitat destruction? Who decides which
species are moved, and who moves them?
plants around for a long time,” he says. “This idea that we
should be territorial about our plants, well, that’s just kind of a
The next day, during a long-awaited rainstorm in western
North Carolina, Lee Barnes, the de facto lieutenant of the
Torreya Guardians, is eager to talk Torreya. “I’m a horticulturist,” he says. “I’m a professional tinkerer.” Barnes, who is no
stranger to T. taxifolia—he wrote his doctoral dissertation on the
cultivation of the Florida torreya and two other endangered
Florida species in the 1980s—has so far collected and distributed about 120 seeds to about a dozen people and gardens north
of Georgia, including amateur gardeners in Ohio, New York,
England, Switzerland, and elsewhere. Some recipients have
reported their successes and failures; some have not.
Barnes’s seed supply comes from a single grove of Torreya
taxifolia, which grows not in Florida but about thirty miles from
his home in North Carolina. In the 1930s and 1940s, on the
grounds of George Vanderbilt’s grand Biltmore Estate, an enterprising head gardener planted seeds he and his botanical
accomplices (known as the Azalea Hunters) collected from
throughout the Southeast. Today, lines of tourists snake through
the vast gardens, but few notice the unassuming, thin-limbed
conifers that stand, unmarked, among magnolias, pines, oaks,
Bill Alexander, forest historian for the estate, has lived on
these grounds for twenty years, and he walks along the curving
path through this cultivated forest, pointing out each Florida
torreya in turn. These trees, all apparently free of the disease
that scourges the Panhandle populations, were likely planted in
the 1930s or 1940s—though perhaps as early as the 1890s—
and some graze >fty feet, a height now unimaginable in Florida.
Despite freezes and hurricanes, the Florida torreya has done
itself proud in North Carolina: one of the trees at Biltmore,
Alexander believes, is the second-largest of the species. The
And if the resulting seedlings establish themselves outside gardens and the manicured grounds of the Biltmore estate?
Alexander looks pleased. “Well,” he says, “then I’ll think, ‘By
God, we’ve been successful.’”
In 2007, ecologist Mark Schwartz and two colleagues, Jessica
Hellmann and Jason McLachlan, published a paper that modestly proposes a “framework for debate” on assisted migration.
While they criticized “maverick, unsupervised translocation
e=orts,” such as the Torreya Guardians’, for their potential to
undermine conservation work and create con?ict, they directed
their harshest criticism at “the far more ubiquitous ‘business as
usual’ scenario that is the current de facto policy.” The three scientists take di=erent stands on the notion of assisted migration.
All are cautious, but McLachlan is usually the most skeptical,
and Hellmann, a University of Notre Dame ecologist who studies butter?ies on the northern end of their range in British
Columbia, is the most open to the concept. “It’s incredibly exciting to think that we could come up with a strategy that might
help mitigate the impacts of climate change,” she says.
Last fall, to initiate a broader discussion, the three scientists
organized a meeting in Davis, California, with other
researchers, land managers, environmental groups, and even
an environmental ethicist. The Florida torreya isn’t the only
species that might bene>t from immediate assisted migration.
The Quino checkerspot butter?y has blinked out on the southern end of its range, in the Mexican state of Baja California,
while the northern end of its range, in Southern California, has
been transformed by development. In South Africa and
Namibia, rising temperatures on the northern edge of the range
of the quiver tree are killing the succulent plants before the
species has a chance to shift south.
But assisted migration is in no case a clear solution. Beyond
initial concerns about new invasive species and territorial con-