On giant trees

Root explosion

You may not consider trees the sexiest of things, but that is merely due to the fact that you have yet to familiarise yourself with the fascinating nature of redwoods and giant sequoias, the worlds largest living organisms. Here is a bit of information on why that is the case:

Redwoods or coast redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) are the world’s tallest trees, the biggest living ones measuring 360 feet, i.e. the equivalent of a 37-story building. Giant sequoias, which are closely related, have fatter and more massive trunks than the redwoods. Hence, measured by the amount of wood it contains, they are bigger but shorter. No-one knows the exact the life span of these trees, but somewhere in between 2,000-4,000 years would be a good guess.

Redwoods only grow in a narrow band of land stretching northwards from California’s Big Sur to fourteen and half miles up the Oregon coast, where they stop abruptly. Giant sequoias are also sparse and can be found only in a limited number of groves in western California.

Until relatively recently, the tallest redwoods were considered inaccessible towers, yet scientists have made it to the canopies – pioneering the techniques of ‘climbing’ by using not only rope in innovative ways but balloons and towers – and returned with some extraordinary findings. These include the discovery of breeding salamanders never visiting the ground, wild bonsai, hanging gardens with three feet of soil, and more generally, tales of a largely unknown ecosystem.

Redwoods dominate the ecosystems in which they appear; they tower above and leave other trees in the shade; they change the chemical composition of the forest floor; they take control over the water; and perhaps most interestingly, they shatter ‘competitors’ by throwing off their dead parts, a phenomenon known as ‘redwood bombing.’ Furthermore, sequoias do not care if they burn, they just grow back.

It is an unsolved mystery why they seem to hit a ceiling at around 360 feet. This has to do with a certain limit as to how far any plant can lift water. They transport the water upwards through a network of unbroken, microscopic pipes. It takes a few weeks for the water to get from the roots to the top, and a tree can do so against a pressure of two million pascals of negative pressure. There has yet to be engineered a system that can suck water under similar pressure, which means that redwoods are better at pulling water than any human technology.

The exact location of the tallest trees, called Titans, is a secret. They, the scientists and nature conservationists, do not want them to end up as attractions for adventurous and potentially damaging climbers.

Between the 1840s and now, close to 96 per cent of the virgin redwood forest was cut down, with only 90,000 acres remaining, scattered across patches of protected land.

The most meticulous article on this topic is, of course, to be found in the most meticulous magazine, the New Yorker. Unfortunately, you can only read the abstract – which is longer than most newspaper articles – if you are not a subscriber. [Update: The full 14,000-word article is available here, including the magnificent pictures.]

I stole most of the information above from said article, yet I have been fortunate enough to see and touch both redwoods and giant sequoias. You can see a couple of pictures from Mariposa Grove (giant sequoia) and Big Sur (redwoods) here.

You should go, too.

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  1. very interesting! didn’t know that. but i was three when i touched one, so didn’t read it up afterwards…

  2. The abstract in the New York Times, may be what is posted in full at a website by Wes Jones.


    Neither that article or Preston’s book The Wild Trees have much for photos. But the story line is good.

    My name in this post should be linked to a photo page for redwood titans.



  3. Very cool site…I always wanted a bonsai tree, but I tend to kill indoor plants, which is hilarious because every summer my outdoor garden does great and people rave about the tomatoes that I grow

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