Red Buckeye – State Champion Tree




The common Red Buckeye (Aesculus pavia) is scattered throughout the southeastern United States from Texas to Florida and northward to Illinois and Virginia. It is most often a shrub or small tree.  While large trees of this species are rare, they have been reported on a few occasions, and I personally have found a few very large ones. 

One Red Buckeye in Jungle Gardens on Avery Island stands out as being exceptional. When Mike Richard Sr. of Jefferson Island showed this tree to me three years ago, I could not believe how large it was. Since that time I have searched the literature and internet for other record-size Red Buckeye trees in the United States and have not found any reported. 

Because of this tree’s size and location, I believe it is unlikely a cultivated plant but instead a naturally occurring one. The species is frequent in the forest throughout Avery Island and even occurs in woods along the island’s outer edge near surrounding cypress swamp forest. 

I contacted the state’s Forestry Service and described the tree, telling them what I thought we had on Avery Island. On February 26, 2019, Dr. Rick Williams of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a section of USDA, came to Avery Island to check out the tree and take the required measurements.

This Red Buckeye is 40 feet tall and has a canopy of 40 feet across and a circumference of 41 inches. Dr. Williams said unquestionably it is the largest one he has ever seen, and there are none of similar size recorded in Louisiana. He is confident the State Forestry Commission will approve its listing as the State Champion Red Buckeye. Furthermore, he went on to say that since no other large ones are listed on the National Registry, he thinks it is an excellent candidate as a National Champion tree. 


Florida Torreya – Torreya taxifolia


Torreya in Jungle Gardens
Torreya in Jungle Gardens
Seed cone of Torreya
Natural Range of Torreya taxifolia


Torreya taxifolia, commonly known as the Florida nutmeg, Florida Torreya, gopher wood, stinking yew, or stinking cedar (although not a true yew or cedar), is a very rare and endangered conifer in the yew family found in the Southeastern United States, at the state border region of northern Florida and southwestern Georgia.

The first plantings of Torreya taxifolia are now in Jungle Gardens.

Torreya taxifolia has one of the most restricted natural ranges of any native tree.  It is only known from a very small area of bluffs and ravines within Torreya State Park and at the Nature Conservancy Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve, located along the east bank of the Apalachicola River in the northern Florida Panhandle and immediately adjacent southernmost Georgia.  It is for all practical purposes nearly extinct in its natural habitat.

The population decline is attributed to a Fusarium fungal pathogen that prevents trees from reaching a mature size, thus preventing them from producing viable seeds and may ultimately kill the tree.  The population of mature trees declined swiftly after the 1950s.  Most trees found are immature and less than 6 feet tall.  Fewer than 10 mature trees producing male or female cones are known to exist.

Fungicide treatment has been shown to be effective for fungal infection, with plants showing renewed growth after treatment.  Recovery of the species may be hindered by global warming.   It appears to be best adapted to the cooler, moister climates.  Botanist believe this tree originate much further north and was forced south in advance of the last glaciers.  Torreya produces a very large cone containing a single seed that resembles green plum.  Chances are once it arrived at its southern destination it was unable to return north in the postglacial warming, due to poor dispersal abilities of the heavy seed.

Some biologists have even suggested that Torreya taxifolia is an evolutionary oddity similar to the Avocado and Osage orange, all of which are thought to have been dispersed by now-extinct animals. The seeds of Torreya taxifolia are extremely hard and require scarification to germinate, which may have been performed by the process of passing through an animal’s digestive tract. The terpene content of the berries and the thinness of the seed’s shell imply that the extinct ecological partner may have been a large tortoise.

Torreya thrives in cultivation and is now being produced commercially by nurseries in several southeastern states.  Successful plantings of this species have been on going for many decades at botanical gardens and private estates and now there are mature trees producing seed in several locations including one at the Caroline Dorman Briarwood Nature Perserve in north Natchitoches Parish,  Louisiana.  The elevated lands of Avery Island appear to be an ideal place for establishing a grove of this rare native cone bearing tree.

Kurogane Holly : Ilex rotunda


The Kurogane Holly or Round Leaf Holly is perhaps the rarest of the many hollies that occur in Jungle Gardens.  Do not confuse this tree with the more common Ilex cornuta var. rotunda.  They are very different.  Only four large trees and two small ones are known to occur in the gardens. All of the large trees are female so unfortunately none of their fruits produce viable seeds.  It is one of the most attractive Holly species in cultivation, producing tremendous clusters of bright red berries in fall months.  Their dark green leaves are spineless as is the entire plant.  This evergreen tree can reach a height of 50 feet.  Those in the gardens are all of similar height, 30+ feet, suggesting they were planted at the same time.  All of these occur along Palm Garden Road.   In 2018,  two additional Round Leaf Hollies were discovered at the edge of a wooded area, not far from one of  the mature trees.  Both of these trees are near one another, both are 6 feet tall and 1 inch in diameter, suggesting they are young plants of similar age and originated from seed.   This gives hope that a male tree could exist in the area but has remained undiscovered.  Careful scrutiny of the flowers on all of the mature trees is needed in early spring to see if some of them might also be producing some pollen bearing flowers.

Kurogane holly was first described in 1784 from Japan.  This species of holly is one of the recognized Hibakujumoku trees.  Hibakujumoku is the Japanese term that refers to trees that are known to have survived the bomb at Hiroshimi in 1945.  The Kurogane Holly is also the official tree of several Japanese municipalities.

Tung Oil Tree : Vernicia fordii



The Tung oil tree, Vernicia fordii (formerly Aleurites fordii) is native to Southern China, Burma and Vietnam. Conspicuous red glands at the base of each leaf blade are unique to the species. Before leaves have fully emerged in spring the tree produces copius clusters of white flowers streaked red. In the fall the trees bear large fruits containing 4-5 seeds.  These seeds are filled with oil that is used in paints and varnish. Every part of the tree is toxic. In 1905 David Fairchild successfully introduced this tree to the Gulf Coast states. From the 1920s-50s the American Tung oil industry flourished, although under constant threat from hard freezes and storms. In 1969 plantations along the gulf coast were devastated by Hurricane Camille and never recovered.  These plantations persisted for many years allowing the trees to become naturalized throughout the region.  They are occasionally cultivated for their attractive flowers.  These trees are scattered across Avery Island.  In Jungle Gardens they are particularly noticeable growing on the rim of the Palm Garden path.

Spanish Moss – Tillandsia usneoides


Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) is not a moss at all, but rather an epiphytic flowering plant in the Bromeliad family.  It is found growing upon larger trees in tropical and subtropical climates.  A native to the southern United States, it also occurs in Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America.  It has even become naturalized in Queensland Australia.  In the US, it is most often seen on Live Oak Trees and Bald Cypress, though it can occur on a variety of trees including Pines.  It produces small green flowers in spring and by fall those mature in to long slender brown fruits.  The seeds are wind dispersed.

Its name “usnseoides” means looks like Usnea, a pendulous Grey Lichen.  panish moss absorbs water directly into the plant body by special scales. It does not derive any nutrition directly from the trees it grows on but it may absorb nutrients in the form minerals that the trees normally shed via their leaves.  Chiggers, though widely thought to infest Spanish-moss, were not seen among thousands of other arthropods identified in one study.

Spanish-moss has been used for a variety of purposes, including  insulation, mulch, packing material, and mattress stuffing.  In the early 1900s it was used commercially as the stuffing for car seats.  Throughout Louisiana it was a popular ingredient in the traditional wall covering material called bousillage.