Sequoiadendron giganteum, Giant Sequoia

February 3, 2013

You’ve long been present in my timeless thoughts

And I am hearing your highest silence waving over all….

                                Freddy Fonseca

Following upon our recent tribute to the Bristlecone Pine, known to many as the oldest of trees, we continue with a superlative salute to the biggest of trees, the Sequoiadendron giganteum, Giant Sequoia. Also referred to as Big Tree, and Wellingtonia, this tree was called the ‘king of all the conifers in the world”, by John Muir (1838-1914), noted author, and preservation ecologist.  Native to California, these “kings” grow indigenously, at between 4,000 and 8,000-feet elevation, on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  Found in 65-70 named sequoia “groves”, located in Sequoia, Kings Canyon, and Yosemite National Parks, as well as Giant Sequoia National Monument, and several state parks, many of these trees are immense, with a scale seemingly beyond organic life. Over two dozen trees have been measured taller than 250-feet, and numerous trees have a single-trunk circumference greater than 100-feet!  Imagine twenty of your friends, holding hands, barely encircling such a behemoth.

It is to some of these exemplars which countless people, shrinking to insignificance next to such giants, have long been marveling at. Since the mid-nineteenth-century, travelers journeying to these trees have returned with accounts of wonder, astonishment, and spirituality.  Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903), renown landscape architect, during his Californian preservation work, for the Yosemite Valley, and the Mariposa Big Tree Grove of sequoias, noted, “…to one who moves among them in the reverent mood to which they so strongly incite the mind, it will not seem strange that intelligent travelers have declared that they would rather have passed by Niagara itself than have missed visiting this…”.

Native Americans, including the Miwok, long knew of these living, ancient, temples. It was as a result of the 1850’s gold rush, bringing thousands, to mine along the streams of the Sierran foothills, which led to wider awareness of these remarkable giants. The classic account cites A. T. Dowd, a hunter, encountering some of these Giant Sequoias, in 1852, and initially, no one believed his description.  Stephen Spongberg, noted taxonomist, and author, further elucidates this history, in his 1998 book, A Reunion of Trees, “…dried specimens and cones … collected in Calaveras Grove … delineated the plant for the scientific community … announce the discovery and introduction … that constituted a new genus … Wellingtonia gigantea …”. Spongberg continues, “Instead, after years of heated dispute, the generic name finally settled upon (Sequoiadendron giganteum) reflects the botanical relationship of the big tree with the redwood (Sequoia sempervirens), the other forest giant intimately associated with the golden state.”  This name pays tribute to the Cherokee chief Sequoyah (c. 1770-1844).

Up close, the bluish-green, evergreen, needles, are 1/8 to ½-inch long, pointed, awl-shaped. These leaves overlap along, and around the stem. Small, yellow, male flowers, terminal on the branches, when mature, produce the pollen.  Female flowers, if fertilized, will develop into cones, 2 to 3 ½- inches long, reddish-brown at maturity.  These cones hold the flattened, ¼-inch-long, light brown, seeds, which have the potential, to become the largest of trees. Sometimes, it is true, that big things do come in small packages.

On your next visit to Mount Auburn, look for our young, diminutive, Giant Sequoias, on Fir Avenue, Spruce Avenue, Amethyst Path, Ash Avenue, and Weigelia Path. These are a few examples, of our on-going efforts toward diversification of our living collection.

About the Author: Jim Gorman

Visitor Services Assistant View all posts by Jim Gorman →

2 Comments

  1. Mark Zelonis says:

    Thanks, Jim, for this great description of one of my all-time favorite trees. My visit to the groves in California many years ago remains one of my most inspirational experiences in nature. I appreciate Mount Auburn having representatives of this species in its marvelous collection.

    • jim gorman says:

      Mark, For most of us, who much too infrequently, get to visit the sensational,Californian Sequoiadendron groves, we can visit the centenarian Sequoiadendron, at Blithewold Gardens, RI. I join with others, in a tip of the hat to you, for your earlier role in caring for this outstanding, New England treasure.

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