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Laguna Blanca Students Plant Rarest of Pines

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To help preserve the future of Torrey pines, Laguna Blanca School teams up with the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden and the U.S. Forest Service in a long-range science project.

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Students do a lot of tree plantings these days, but it’s not often that the horticulture lesson is one that seeks to stave off the extinction of America’s rarest pine tree.

That was the aim Friday of Laguna Blanca School students and faculty, including headmaster Doug Jessup in his trademark bowtie, who shoveled dirt and planted foot-tall Torrey pines atop a hillside nestled between sweeping views of the ocean and tree-covered mountains near Carpinteria.

The project, called "Torreys for Tomorrow," occurred in Toro Canyon, at the Hay Hill site of the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, which co-sponsored the event with Laguna Blanca and the U.S. Forest Service.

The idea is to help professional horticulture experts conduct a study that could save the Torrey pines, whose presence in the United States has been reduced to just two patches, both in Southern California.

Each of the two clusters — one near La Jolla, the other on Santa Rosa Island — harbors a different subspecies. But individual trees within each group are unusually similar to each other genetically, leaving the entire groves vulnerable to epidemic disease.

"If you get a disease, it could just rip through the entire population," said Andrew Wyatt, director of horticulture at the Botanic Garden. He added that although the Torrey pine could be considered threatened, it has not yet been dubbed "endangered."

"But you don’t really know what’s going to happen in the future," he said.

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(In addition to being a tourist attraction, the Botanic Garden is also a member of the Center for Plant Conservation, a national organization dedicated to conserving and restoring the rare native plants of the United States.)

The object of the study is to see if a cross-pollinated hybrid of the two strains produces a hardier specimen.

For the school, the planting provided a dual-purpose: To deliver students a lesson in conservation, and to make a contribution to the community in honor of the school’s 75th anniversary.

Wendy van Diver, a Laguna parent and the coordinator of its ongoing series of 75th anniversary events, said parents and staff wanted to celebrate the milestone in a way that goes beyond "cake and balloons."

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An idea came up to plant trees, but somehow that concept alone seemed to fall short.

"We didn’t want to just go out and plant trees," she said. "It was important that we do something meaningful."

Van Diver started calling around, starting with a member of the Santa Barbara Beautiful preservationist group, who knew about the Botanic Garden’s Torrey pine project, and put her in touch with Wyatt. As it turned out, Wyatt needed help planting hundreds of trees.

As part of the study, 460 trees are separated into three categories: pines from the San Diego-area site, pines from the Santa Rosa Island site, and pines that are hybrids of the two.

Through the years, researchers will be able to compare the development of the three groves.

Meanwhile, for teachers at Laguna, the site will serve as a science lesson for students of all ages.

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"Kindergartners can come out and measure how high the tallest trees are, but the A.P. biology students can start to look at the DNA sequences," said Staci Richard, who teaches freshmen and senior science at Laguna. "This will be a long-term restoration project for the science department."

In this context, "long-term" might be an understatement: By the time Friday’s foot-long trees reach cone-bearing size, which is about 12 feet, Laguna’s current kindergartners will be finishing college.

Eventually, the tallest trees will reach 80 feet.

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