Get to Know the Essential Redwood Tree

Looking up at the redwood trees while standing on the ground.

Scrubhiker (USCdyer) / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

A North American redwood tree is one of the world's tallest trees. There is one coastal California Sequoia sempervirens tree that holds the "tallest tree" record at nearly 380 feet. It is called "Hyperion." Many of these trees' locations are not given due to land property concerns, logging issues, and complications from unofficial visitors. They are also extremely isolated and in the remote wilderness.

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World's Tallest Tree

Woman standing in front of the Lost Monarch tree.

J.daniel.barker / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0

This particular tree is estimated to be over 700 years old. The largest volume, single-stem redwood tree was found in Redwood National Park in 2014. This single tree has an estimated stem volume of 38 thousand cubic feet. A larger volume is found in the "Lost Monarch" redwood in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, but this is a multiple-stem tree from which the wood of the separate stems is combined into the total volume.

According to the Gymnosperm Database, some western Australian eucalyptus trees can attain great heights but are clearly not competitive with coast redwood for height and wood volumes or value. There is historical data that suggests some Douglas firs (Pseudotsuga menziesii) were once recorded as being taller than the coastal redwoods, but they now no longer exist.

It is reasonable to think that when redwoods are growing on fertile lowland coastal sites with adequate water, low fire risk, and they are not subject to harvest, record heights are achieved. The largest number of ring counts cut on a stump is 2,200, which suggests the tree has a genetic potential of living at least two thousand years.

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North American Redwoods

Dirt path winding through the trunks of redwood trees on a sunny day.

Chmee2 / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0, 2.5, 2.0, 1.0

 ​A Scottish botanist first scientifically described the redwood as an evergreen within the genus Pinus in 1824 but probably got his sample or description from a second-hand source. Later in the 19th century, an Austrian botanist (who was more familiar with the tree's taxonomy) renamed it and placed it in a non-pine genus he uniquely named Sequoia in 1847. The redwood's current binomial name remains Sequoia sempervirens.

According to Monumental Trees, the first written reference to finding the tree was made in 1833 by an expedition of hunter/explorers and in the diary of J. K. Leonard. This reference does not mention the area of the location but was later documented to be in the "North Grove" of the Calaveras Big Tree California State Forest in the spring of 1852 by Augustus Dowd. His discovery of this enormous tree made the redwood popular to loggers. Roads were constructed for harvest access.

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Taxonomy and Range

Map showing the range of redwood tree growth.

Halava / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0

The redwood tree is one of the three important North American trees of the family Taxodiaceae. That means that it has close relatives that include the giant sequoia or Sierra redwood (Sequoiadendron giganteum) of the Sierra Nevada in California and the baldcypress (Taxodium distichum) of the southeastern states.

Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens)also called coastal redwood or California redwood, is native to the central and northern California coast. The range of the redwood tree extends southward from "groves" on the Chetco River in the extreme southwest corner of Oregon to Salmon Creek Canyon in the Santa Lucia Mountains of southern Monterey County, CA. This narrow belt follows the Pacific coast side for 450 miles.

This is an ecosystem of moderate to heavy winter rain and summer fog, and it is vital to the trees' survival and growth.

The pinkish-brown wood is sought-after for its quality. The red-brownish bark is fibrous, spongy, and heat-resistant.

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Forest Habitat of Coastal Redwood

Redwood forest on a sunny day.

Lyn Gateley / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Pure stands (often called groves) of redwood are found only on some of the best sites, usually growing on moist river flats and gentle slopes below an elevation of 1,000 feet. Although redwood is a dominant tree throughout its range, generally it is mixed with other conifers and broad-leaf trees.

You can find Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) well-distributed throughout most of the redwood's habitat, with other conifer associates being more limited but important. Significant species on the coastal side of the redwood type are grand fir (Abies grandis), and western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla). Less common conifers associated on the coastal side of the redwood type are Port-Orford-cedar (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana)Pacific yew (Taxus brevifolia)western redcedar (Thuja plicata)and California torreya (Torreya californica).

The two most abundant hardwoods, widely-distributed in the redwood region, are tanoak (Lithocarpus densiflorus) and Pacific madrone (Arbutus menziesii)Less abundant hardwoods include vine maple (Acer circinatum)bigleaf maple (A. macrophyllum)red alder (Alnus rubra)giant chinkapin (Castanopsis chrysophylla)Oregon ash (Fraxinus latifolia)Pacific bayberry (Myrica californica)Oregon white oak (Quercus garryana)cascara buckthorn (Rhamnus purshiana), willows (Salix spp.)and California-laurel (Umbellularia californica).

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Redwood Reproductive Biology

Close up of redwood tree needles.

leoleobobeo (pixabay.com) / Needpix

Redwood is a very large tree but the flowers are tiny, separately male and female (evergreen monoecious tree), and develop on different branches of the same tree. The fruits grow into broadly oblong cones on branch tips. Small redwood female cones (.5 to 1.0 inches long) become receptive to male pollen, which is shed between late November and early March. This cone is very similar to baldcypress and dawn redwood.

Seed production starts at about age 15 and increases in viability for the next 250 years, but the seed germination rate is poor and seed dispersal from the parent tree is minimal. So the tree best regenerates itself vegetatively from root crowns and stump sprouts.

Seeded or sprouting young-growth redwood growth is nearly as spectacular in attaining size and wood volume as old-growth. Dominant young-growth trees on good sites can reach heights of 100 to 150 feet at age 50 years and 200 feet at 100 years. Height growth is most rapid up to the 35th year. On the best sites, height growth continues to be rapid well past 100 years.

Sources

"A Brief History of Calaveras Big Trees State Park." Calaveras Big Trees State Park, California Department of Parks and Recreation, State of California, 2019.

"Grove of Titans and Mill Creek Trail Closure." Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, California Department of Parks and Recreation, State of California, 2019.

"History of the giant sequoia." Monumental trees.

"Home." U.S. Forest Service, USDA.

"Redwood." National and State Parks California, National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Crescent City, CA. 

"Sequoia sempervirens." The Gymnosperm Database, 2019.