California Redwood Sequoias

Benches on the trail in a relaxing forest of California Redwoods.
Benches on the trail in a relaxing forest of California Sequoias.

Redwoods History

In 1768 the Spanish regent Carlos III felt the need to consolidate his colonies in the Alta California territory of New Spain before England and Russia did the same. Thus he ordered Jose de Galvez, the Spanish Viceroy or Governor in Mexico City, to pursue this end. Galvez organized four separate expeditions, two by sea and two by land, to establish a string of presidios and Franciscan Missions from San Diego to Sonoma 800km (500 mi), a pueblo north of San Francisco.

By the early spring of the following year Don Gaspar de Portola volunteered to lead an overland expedition from the Mission San Fernando de Velicata in Baja California up the length of Alta California, more than 800 km (500m), in search of Monterey Bay, known to the Spanish as Bahia do los Pinos since the voyage of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo in 1542 and Sebastian Vizcaino’s 1602 arrival in the natural harbor he named Puerto de Monterey in honor of the Viceroy of New Spain the Count of Monterey.

At first Portola was unable to find his destination but continued north and in the Fall of 1769 he became the first European to arrive by land at San Francisco Bay. His group of soldiers, settlers, and Catholic Franciscan Padres including Junipero Serra were camped near the present day city of Watsonville when Portola noticed some “very high trees of a red color.” They had never before seen trees like these so Portola named them “palo colorado” or redwood.

Botany of Redwoods

Before the discovery of gold in 1848 there were more than 800,000 ht (2 million acres) acres of Coast Redwood in Northern California known to the indigenous coastal Miwok as cho-lay. Soon after the 1849 Gold Rush sawmills began to scream in company towns like Forestville in Sonoma County, very close to the Armstrong Redwood Preserve in Guernville.

Thousands of huge Coast Redwood logs were dragged out of the woods or floated down flumes and rivers across rugged terrain to the choked mill ponds of sawmills in scores of boom towns near the Pacific coast.

Teamsters guided massive wagons drawn by teams of up to 12 oxen or draft horses and hauled tens of thousands of board feet of cut green lumber to the rocky shores and cliffs above the Pacific. Here elaborate systems of blocks, tackles, cables and thick rope carried the lumber out to boats anchored up to a hundred yards off shore for lack of beaches or proper docks. Stacked in the holds and lashed to the decks the boats sailed south to the burgeoning Bay Area.

The C A Thayer, a rare 19th century lumber schooner that made more than a few of these voyages, is now being restored but remains open to the public at the National Maritime Museum near Aquatic Park at Fishermen’s Wharf in San Francisco.

By the end of the 19th century, almost 97% of the once ubiquitous Coast Redwood had been logged off for lumber, railroad ties, trestles, fence posts and pipelines. Robert Louis Stevenson is said to have paneled his living room in Samoa with Coast Redwood in 1891.

The California Redwood is unique to the Golden State. These ancient giants are actually two of three species in the Sequoia family commonly called redwood. This family is in turn one of a group of seven subfamilies of conifers or cone-bearing seed plants known as Cupressaceae, (co-press-say-see-eye or co-press-say-see-ee) known simply as cypress.

Although trees of the cypress family grow all over the world the three known as redwood, Metasequoia or Dawn Redwood, Sequoiadendron Giganteum or Giant Seqouia and Sequoia Sempervirens or Coast Redwood grow only in the US and Asia.

Dawn Redwood are native to the Chinese and Taiwanese east coasts. Coast Redwood are indigenous to select areas along the California coast where they thrive in the mild coastal climate along a 750 km (470 mi) narrow strip of the California coast in isolated groves from Redwood National and State Parks, 480km (300 mi) north of San Francisco near the Oregon state line, to Santa Clara and Monterey Counties, 200 km (125 mi) south of San Francisco. They can also grow at higher elevations of up to 920 m (3,000 ft) on the western slopes of mountains near abundant and moisture laden sea air.

Today transplanted Coast Redwood can be found in other world-wide locations including England, Australia and surprisingly downtown San Francisco where, Unknown to many San Franciscans, there are 50 Coast Redwood that were brought up from Santa Clara County in 1972 and transplanted in a lovely mini park at the eastern base of the Transamerica Pyramid.

Coast Redwood are the tallest trees on earth. In ideal conditions far north of San Francisco one of the most spectacular Coast Redwood, known as the “Lost Monarch”, has reached a height of 98 mt (320 ft). It’s precise location has been kept secret to protect the delicate ecosystem around it from excessive foot traffic.

In environments like these, the upper crowns of dense Coast Redwood grow so closely together their limbs will often merge with each other, intermingling among the crotches where branches and trunks intersect. This creates a canopy high above the forest floor where airborne debris can collect, decay and even form a soil-like substance that has been reported to reach depths of up to a meter (3 ft), high above the earth.

In mountainous regions Coast Redwood won’t reach the heights normally attained by those exposed to frequent heavy fogs and are often crowded out by other conifers. Fog is the lifeblood of these trees because they draw moisture from their towering foliage that flows down to the roots.

In Muir Woods, 24 km (15mi) north of San Francisco, the tallest Coast Redwood has risen to 256 ft (78 m) because of lighter and intermittent fog. Coast Redwood live on average 500 to 600 years. One Coast Redwood is known to have survived for 2200 years.

Coast Redwood reproduce in several ways depending on the particular stage of growth. Trees of the Cupressaceae family are both monoecious (mon-ee-shus), a tree that has both seeds and pollen and reproduces asexually and dioecious (di-ee-shus), a tree that has only seeds or pollen and must reproduce through heterosexual fertilization.

Coast Redwoods have shallow roots that extend in a circular pattern up to 50 ft (15 m) in diameter around a parent tree’s base, sometimes also called a crown. New trees can sprout from these roots in the same circular pattern. Interestingly this growth pattern is known as a “fairy circle”. It is similar to the way mushrooms grow and is why one will see circular groups of trees growing around a parent tree.

This method of reproduction also occurs if a tree is damaged by wind or lightning. In this case a hormone is released that stimulates dormant buds to begin growing around a tree’s crown or base, low on the trunk or even from a stump. This is why one or more trees may appear to be growing from the same stump. Fallen trees can also foster new growth. As the fall decays on the forest floor new trees can sprout, again from dormant buds along the downed trunk. This why several trees can appear to be growing in a line.

All Coast Redwood have pine cones and after a decade thousands of seed develop. However only about 7% of the seeds will result in a young tree. In addition, the ground beneath a Coast Redwood grove, thick with ferns and other undergrowth, is often unsuitable for sprouting seeds.

The Coast Redwood is suffused with tannin, the source of its resistance to fire, insects, and decay. Tannin gives the wood and bark its red coloring while the absence of resin makes it hard to burn. These properties outweigh it soft and brittle nature.

Of the remaining trees today, about 32,000 ht (80,000 acres) or 4% are protected as the result of the hard won early activists and sometimes extreme battles of activists in the 1980s. However some old-growth Coast Redwood still at risk in commercial forests.

Giant Sequoia

Pathway through a redwood sequoia tree.
Pathway through a redwood sequoia tree.

In the 18th century more than 70,000 Native Americans composed of more than 60 tribes lived near the southern reaches of the San Joaquin Valley in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. They knew the Giant Sequoia now in Calaveras State Park as Toos-pung-ish or Hea-mi-withic. In 1852 hunter named Augustus T Dowd was tracking a grizzly bear when he came upon a grove of Giant Sequoia. He brought his skeptical neighbors back to the site, amazed, they called it the Discovery Tree and Dowd today is credited with “discovering” the new species. In 1853 a group of locals built a road to the grove, worked 22 days to fell the the Discovery Tree beginning a long period of exploitation by building a dance floor on its stump.

Perhaps 60 to 70 groves of native Giant Sequoia can be found in remote groves across the western slope of the Sierra Nevada range about 290 km (180 miles) east of San Francisco. They can only be found at altitudes between 1300-2000 m (4500-6500 ft) north of Kings River and 1700-2250 m (5500-7500 ft) south of Kings River that flows from high in the Sierra through the southern portion of the Central Valley where it disappears to quench the thirst of a vast agricultural region.

The Tuolomne, Merced and Mariposa Giant Sequoia groves are in Yosemite National park. One unmarked Giant Sequoia of moderate size grows on the valley floor near Sentinel Bridge transplanted long ago for some forgotten occasion. There are other groves in Kings Canyon National Park, Giant Sequoia National Monument and Sequoia National Park in the Sequoia National Forest. Groves of Giant Sequoia can be found as far north as the Tahoe and as far south as the Sierra National Forests.

Giant Sequoia are the largest trees in the world measured by volume. They can reach heights of between 50-85 m (165-280 ft) and between 6-8 m (18-24 ft) in diameter. The worlds largest Giant Sequoia is the General Sherman in the Giant Forest Grove of Sequoia National Park, measuring 84 mt (275 ft) in height with a diameter of 12m (40 ft). The oldest Giant Sequoia is thought to exceed 3500 years.

Giant Sequoia reproduce not only by seed but before 20 years of growth they may sprout from a stump after an injury. No matter how old it is a Giant Sequoia will sprout to replace a broken branch or one lost to fire. A mature tree will not sprout from a stump.

Cones begin to appear after 12 years and mature after 18-20 months. On average a mature Giant Sequoia can bear near 11,000 cones between 4-7 cm (2-3 in) long, each with an average 230 seeds thus shed 300,000-400,000 seeds a year. More cones will be found in the upper foliage than on lower branches and they will remain closed and green for up to 20 years. The cones may shrink during hot weather when some seeds will be released but commonly fire and insect damage cause cones to dry, open up and release the most seeds Insects and squirrels also play an important role in dispersing the seed.

To germinate seeds require full sunlight and a nutrient rich soil. Fire serves to clear vegetation that would otherwise crowd out new growth and provide nutrients to the soil.

Changing conditions in the habitat of Giant Sequoia are less of a threat to existing trees than the consequences a lack of young Giant Sequoia pose to their future.