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The Torrey pine is one of California's most iconic trees. Jill Hamilton

By Jake Buehler

The wind rips across California's Santa Rosa Island, howling as it flattens dry grass and sage in unrelenting waves. Downhill, a small group of trees, stark against the cobalt blue of the Pacific, stand firm. Their gnarled branches barely sway, knotted up in a cloud of green needles, perpetually pinned backward like a flag in a storm.

The trees seem like an avatar of resilience in an austere environment, but Torrey pines (Pinus torreyana) are some of the most rare and critically endangered pines in the world. A century ago, the pines went through a near-extinction-level population crash when the trees, never common, were largely cleared for pastureland development. The survivors were mostly in isolated areas—like Santa Rosa Island—that had only been settled by a few trees to begin with. The number of trees has increased since then, and their blown-up bonsai appearance has made Torrey pines popular ornamental trees. But the population bottleneck caused by the near-extinction meant the obliteration of nearly all of the species' genetic diversity.

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