On Sequoias

As if I haven’t made this abundantly clear to anybody who knows me or to anybody who has read up on this site, I absolutely love trees. I love the common local trees, such as oak, sycamore, and willows, in all of their varieties. I love the less common local trees like water-loving alders, black walnut, bay, and maples. I have a particular love for conifers, including the local varieties like Douglas fir, Jeffrey and Coulter pine, incense cedars, and white fir. And, of course, I love the trees that don’t grow locally, from the towering spruces in the Northwest, the bewildering array of deciduous trees in the Midwest, junipers and yuccas in the desert, palms in the south and the Hawaiian islands, and all of the exotic and domestic ornamentals. If there is any element in a hike that I love best – more than shrubs, grasses, hillsides, mountains, views, creeks, and rivers – it is trees.


However, there is one variety of tree that I love above all else, and that is the sequoia. I want to write about them not only because they are phenomenal trees in a number of ways, but also because I come across confusion and misunderstandings about them all the time.

Consider this exchange:

Me: So, I went up to the Sequoias again this last weekend.
Him/Her: Oh, how nice! Did you go to Muir Woods?
Me: No, the Sierras.
Him/Her: Oh. . . Aren’t those near San Francisco?

Or:

Me: I’m going to the Sierras on a backpacking trip.
Him/Her: Are you going to see the redwoods?

Both statements about the trees are incorrect. I feel like making the correction each time because these trees, more than any other, deserve dignity and respect. It may sound silly to advocate for a tree this way, but there is no doubt that both trees are among the most incredible plants in the world. Consider: both trees occuppied expansive territory in the cooler, wetter past. Ancestors of both specimens of Sequoia (the Sierran sequoiadendron giganteum and the coastal sequoia sempervierns, or “Sequoia” and “Redwood,” respectively) covered their respective ranges and were the alpha plant species in their respective territories. That they have survived while most of the ancient ecosystems have disappeared is remarkable in itself.

However, both trees offer superlatives or approach superlatives in many senses. The coast redwood is the tallest tree on the planet with one tree measuring 379 feet and with historical specimens reaching as high as 420 feet. That is equivalent to a 35-story building. The Sequoia is the largest tree, measured by volume, on earth. Because it lives up to 3,000 years and never stops growing horizontally, these trees achieve truly epic girth (fatties). The General Sherman tree weighs 4,189 tons. That’s equivalent to 23 blue whales, or, if you like, about 838 Hummers.

They are among the oldest trees too, with the Sequoia living up to 3200 years and Redwoods living up to 1800 years. They are among the tallest trees, with Sequoias also topping out above 300 feet. They are among the widest trees, with Sequoias having a diameter up to 56 feet and Redwoods having a diameter up to 26 feet. But in order to appreciate this in terms we can really grasp, consider that a mature Sequoia may be older than Jesus, taller than a 30-story building, and wider than the length of a humpback whale.

The confusion between the two trees exists due to the color of their barks. Not truly “red woods,” the redwood gets its name from the color of its bark. Coast redwoods have a dark reddish bark, while Sequoias have a lighter, cinnamon color. However, since both have a red color, they often both get called redwoods. Kings Canyon in the Sierras has a Redwood Canyon sequoia grove and Big Basin has a Sequoia Trail. That doesn’t help matters either.Their foliage, height, diamter, and structures are also generally similar, so when viewed in pictures, they do look similar. In person, however, they are easy to distinguish.

There are more differences between the two trees than similarities. Sequoias occupy small areas on west-facing, gently-sloped mountains between the 5,000′-8,000′ range. They require a lot of moisture, which is abundant in these environments. Most of the moisture comes in the form of snow, which can reach between 3 and 8 feet deep during the winter. Snow is so important to Sequoias that they will not reach their potential (and will often die prematurely) without it.

Sequoia forests are open and sunny, with the big trees dominating the smaller (but still massive) species that share the forest. The forests have a distinct “cathedral” feeling, with echoing sounds and towering pillars, prompting many to describe the forest in religious terms. The air is almost always cool, crisp, and dry, with the temperature rarely ever rising above 80 degrees.

They are also nearly immune to the sorts of problems that face other trees, such as fire, disease, and insects. Their bark is thick, often up to 3 feet thick, and it has a high concentration of tannins, which repel fire. It takes an extremely hot fire to kill a Sequoia, and while many trees have burn scars, few actually die from the flames. The main cause of death is toppling. Because Sierran soil is rocky and shallow, they have extensive, but shallow root systems. When the soil can no longer support the tree, it will fall and die. The Sequoia groves are littered with massive fallen trees, evidencing thousands of years of Sequoias in various stages of decomposition. Without the weakness of shallow roots, Sequoias might live indefinitely.

In addition, Sequoias provide brittle wood, making them unusable in most timber applications. This fact has proven to be beneficial for the trees, especially when considering the fate of the coast redwood, which provides desirable timber. Sequoias have been logged, but with such few uses and ardent protection, they have been more or less left alone.

Which is all for the best since Sequoias are rare. They occupy a narrow strip of the western Sierras from the area east of Bakersfield to just shy of Lake Tahoe. They don’t occur in large forests, but more often coexist with firs, cedars, oaks and pines in mixed conifer forests in small groves (the sugar pine, which grows alongside Sequoias, is the world’s largest pine, and reaches 250′ in height. It’s not just Sequoias that are giants here). The largest of the groves, Redwood Canyon and Giant Forest, can be traversed in a couple of hours. Essentially, Sequoias occupy small islands in a sea of smaller trees.

Not so for the Redwood. Their habitat is much larger than the Sequoia, ranging from Big Sur to the Oregon border. At one time, this region was dominated by redwoods to the point that the region was dubbed the “Redwood Empire.” They occupy damp, foggy strips of coastline, never ranging further than 70 miles from the ocean. They rely on the fog as a source of moisture, particularly for younger redwoods. Because of such abundant moisture, they are able to reach great heights. However, due to climate change, the California coast is in many places receiving 75% fewer foggy days than it has in the past. Older trees will survive the lack of fog, but younger trees will not. Ultimately, the trees will thin out and become replaced by hardier species.

Additionally, Redwood timber has a multitude of uses, whether as furniture or in construction. 95% of the original old-growth redwood forests have been chopped down, leaving the Redwood Empire of northern California as a shell of its former self. These trees are protected in one national park and several state parks, of which Muir Woods is only a small and relatively unimpressive example.

The redwood forests are densely vegetated places – sometimes even to the point of oppression. Trees grow close together and share space with Douglas firs (also among the world’s tallest trees), oaks, firs, and an occasional pine in the dryer sections. Ferns, grasses, mosses, and shrubs dominate the ground, and the air is cool, crisp, but extremely damp in contrast to the drier Sierran atmosphere. Water is abundant in the form of creeks, with redwoods growing densest along water courses. It is common to find newts and banana slugs, both moisture loving critters, crawling along the floor.

Both trees are remarkable, and a visit is a must for any serious nature lover. Both trees represent holdovers from a damper, cooler age. They were the kings of the plant kingdom in their time and continue to dominate where they exist today.

But beyond that, the habitats in which these trees exist seem to be more beautiful than most. There’s a quality, or an atmosphere, or even a “vibe” – for lack of a better word – to these places that makes them feel different, almost benevolent, as if they belong to another age in which the world was grander and more hospitable. It is impossible to walk in these woods and not stand in awe; the mind literally cannot make sense, which explains the comparisons of 838 Hummers of 35-story buildings. Nowhere on the planet can you see trees like this, and it is with great fortune that both are available within a six hour drive for me.

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