The Essential Giant Sequoia

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Sequoiadendron Giganteum, The Biggest Tree on Earth

The World's Largest Tree
Sequioas, the Largest Living Thing. Steve Nix

Although the North American redwood tree is the world's tallest tree, giant Sequoia or California Bigtree is one of the oldest and most massive of living things. The tree grows to an average height of 164 to 279 feet depending on the location and 20 to 26 feet in diameter The oldest known giant sequoia, based on ring count aging, is 3,500 years old. 

The General Sherman tree in the Sequoia National Park is listed as the Giant Sequoia champion and listed on the American Forests Big Tree Registry. It measures 275 feet in height and 101 feet in girth (circumference) at ground level.

Following the Sherman tree in size, is the General Grant tree in Kings Canyon National Park that measures 268 feet in height and 107 feet in girth at ground level and the President tree in the Giant Forest of Sequoia National Park at 241 feet tall and 93 feet around its girth on the ground.

Interestingly, new redwood trees have been found and their trunk diameter at chest height measure more than any known living giant sequoia.

According to The Gymnosperm Database, all wild Sequoiadendron groves are protected and nearly all are relatively easy to visit and located on public lands. The most impressive and accessible groves are found in Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Of these, the most popular and among the largest are in the Giant Forest in Sequoia National Park.

The President tree (as mentioned above) can be seen on the Congress Trail in the Giant Forest. It was originally named the Harding Tree but was dropped as the popularity of that particular president declined.

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The Sequoiadendron Giganteum's Evolution and Range

Giant Sequoia Groves
The Range of the Giant Sequoia. USFS

The earliest close relatives of the giant sequoia or Sequoiadendron giganteum have been found as fossils from the Cretaceous or Mesozoic period and found throughout much of the Northern Hemisphere. But because they appear to differ significantly from the present giant sequoia, they are not considered their immediate ancestors (cited from Evolution and History of Giant Sequoia, H.T. Harvey).  

Traces of the giant sequoia's true ancestors have been found in what is now western Nevada and developed into the present form as conditions became cooler and drier. The survivors of the ancient trees began to grow and prosper at the southwestern edge of the Sierra Nevada mountain range to eventually migrate north along the low, moist western slopes. It is speculated that these trees may have always existed as isolated groves but could have been one continuous belt about 300 miles.

Humans first discovered the giant sequoia shortly after these Native Americans arrived in North America tens of thousands of years ago. One account was recorded in 1877 (Powers)  "that the people of the Mokelumne Tribe referred to the sequoia as 'woh-woh-nau,' which in the Miwok tongue was a word supposedly in the imitation of the hoot of an owl, the guardian spirit of the great and ancient trees." 

The present-day natural range of the tree is restricted to about 75 groves scattered over a 260-mile belt extending along the west slope of the Sierra Nevada in central CaliforniaThe northern two-thirds of the range, from the American River in Placer County southward to the Kings River, takes in only eight widely disjunct groves. The remaining groves are concentrated between the Kings River and the Deer Creek Grove in southern Tulare County (cited from USFS Giant Sequoia, Silvics)

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North American Giant Sequioa History

One of the only giant sequoias to be cut.
Felled sequioa, Big Trees, California. Steve Nix

In the summer of 1852 A. T. Dowd, a hunter of meat for a water company, discovered giant sequoias in the vicinity of his camp above the Murphys gold mining camp in the Sierra Nevada. He returned to camp and told his "incredible" tale of gigantic trees. No one accepted his story as credible but he coaxed a group of lumberjacks to follow him to what is now known as the North Calaveras Grove in the Calaveras Big Trees State Park.

Word of a "Tree Giant" spread like wildfire and in 1853 one of the trees in the grove was felled, not with a saw (none would be large enough), but by using pump screw augers and wedges to undermine the tree. It took five men 22 days to drill all the holes. The above photo shows the stump and the auger holes in the butt log. John Muir later wrote in anger that the "vandals then danced upon the stump!"

Another tree was totally debarked, the bark reassembled and turned into a mobile traveling exhibit (but burned a year later). The tree eventually died, and its gigantic snag still stands as a reminder of human greed and ecological ignorance.

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Forest Habitat of Sequoiadendron Giganteum

Sequoia Cone and Bark. By J Brew, Flickr Commons

Giant sequoia grows best in deep, well-drained sandy loams but its mass growth is greater on  wetter sites like well-drained bottoms and meadow edges than in other habitats within a grove. The total acreage of these productive sites is small so trees tend to be limited to "groves". Relatively shallow and rocky soils can support vigorous individuals, some large, when the tree is established where underground water is available to maintain them.

The associated cover type trees: you can find California white firdespite the presence of emergent individuals of giant sequoia that overtop the canopy. Sugar pine is also characteristically associated with the tree. Incense-cedar is an associate at low elevations and California red fir at high elevations may rival California white fir for dominance. Ponderosa pine and California black oak often occupy drier sites within the grove boundaries.

The associated understory type trees: you can find Pacific dogwood (Cornus nuttallii), California hazel (Corylus cornuta var.californica), white alder (Alnus rhombifolia), Scouler willow (Salix scoulerana), bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum), bitter cherry (Prunus emarginata), and canyon live oak (Quercus chrysolepis).