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Tallest tree in the world: coast redwood

The coast redwood, the world's tallest tree, is one of the three sequoia tree species, together with the giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) and the dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides). The coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) grows in natural stands in a long, thin coastal area along the Pacific Ocean in the west and northwest of the US (mostly California). It is the tallest tree in the world.

With its relatively slender silhouette this tree can grow even up to 20 m or 60 ft taller than the tallest giant sequoias, that are nevertheless the biggest trees in the world, when looking at the volume of the trunk. The tallest known living tree, named Hyperion, is 115.55 m or 379.1 ft (measured in 2006) tall! This gets close to 120 to 130 m, that, according to a 2004 biological study, is the maximum attainable height [1] of a tree.

Foggy coastal forests of the Pacific

During the whole year it rains quite a lot in this thin coastal strip and it is quite foggy most of the time. This way the tree can absorb enough water and does not suffer that much from evaporation stress. Most of the tallest trees can be found in the wet river valleys on fertile, alluvial deposits, although unexpectedly a couple of recently discovered record breaking trees appeared to grow on the valley slopes. The coast redwood forests have an abundant undergrowth (among which there are a lot of ferns). However, the biggest biodiversity can be found tens of meters up: different species of plants, lichens, salamanders, ... live high up in the sky between the complex branch systems of the redwoods. Prof. Steve Sillett, who studies these redwood canopies, compares them with "hanging gardens".

 

The get an impression of the size of these redwoods: the images above show some of these trees. On the left is the "Del Norte Titan" in the Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, California (© Robert Van Pelt). Notice the people in the left bottom corner. The tree on the right is called "Screaming Titans", also in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park.

The Del Norte Titan has a height of 93.6 m and a girth at breast height of 22.7 m. He is definitely not the tallest coast redwood, or the thickest, but has the second largest trunk volume ("The Lost Monarch" comes in first, depending on your definition of a "single tree"). Nevertheless he is surpassed in volume by the giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron), of which about fifteen specimens have a bigger volume with "General Sherman" on top of the list.

Description

On first sight, the needles of the coast redwood do not resemble those of the giant sequoia: they are bigger and flat, much like that of a yew. The crown is conical just like the one of the giant redwood, with an almost equally massive trunk with a reddish brown, soft bark. The egg shaped cones are smaller (2 to 3 cm). In contrast to most other conifers, the coast redwood starts to grow again after being cut. The maximum age is probably around 2500 years.

Heavily threatened by logging companies

This quickly growing tree has straight trunks and the quality of the wood is excellent, which resulted in heavy - and ongoing - loggings. The wood of Sequoia sempervirens has been and is extensively used in construction. About 96% of the original redwood forests have been logged and the deforestation is still continuing. Luckily most of the few remaining stands are preserved in the National and State Parks, which are probably essential for the long term preservation of this species.

The woods outside of the parks (with many trees more than a thousand years old) are still being "commercially managed".... This is source of constant protests, such as the famous action of activist Julia Butterfly Hill (photo). For over two years, she lived in the canopy of a coast redwood named "Luna" to keep the the old growth tree from being logged by the Pacific Lumber Company and to plead for sustainable forestry instead of clearcutting entire woods (which has devastating effects on the natural balance and causes extreme soil erosion). Eventually she succeeded: as a result of the massive press coverage (and the attention for the old growth forest clearcuttings it brought with it) "Luna" and some other redwoods were saved from the chain saw. What a remarkable woman!

It's highly probable that without actions like that and protests of organisations like "Save the redwoods League", "Sempervirens Fund", "Sierra Club", and others, there would be no old growth redwood forests left. These organisations get their money from gifts and buy privaty property themselves to donate them to the State Parks and National Parks.

The images below were taken by Nick Sabadosh in the misty redwood woods near Crescent City, California an are used here with permission [6]. These holiday photos show specimens of Sequoia sempervirens in their natural environment, the foggy forests near the Pacific.

 

Because of the dramatic atmosphere, these forests have been used as scenery in movies: the scenes with the Ewoks in the Star Wars movies were shot in these woods, just as multiple parts of the Jurassic Park movies. For those last movies this choice is not very unlogic: during the Cretaceous, the top period for North American dinosaurs, these woods could be found all over the continent.

These trees (and especially young ones) are quite sensitive for winter frost and do not grow that well on the eastern side of the Rockies and in most parts of Europe. Biggest limiting factor is drought: it just isn't wet enough. In the wettest European parts, in England and Wales, planted redwoods do already reach 45 meters and more en seed themselves.

Visiting yourself?

Most of the groves are located in the coastal area of California. The largest populations are in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park (Del Norte County), Redwood National Park and Humboldt Redwoods State Park (Humboldt County).

The most visited grove is in Muir Woods National Monument, one of the last remaining stands in the immediate San Francisco Bay Area.

The tallest tree in the world

Hyperion, the world's tallest living tree, is a coast redwood and is no less than 379.1 ft (115.55 m) tall!

This enormous tree was discovered only in August 2006 in a remote part of the Redwood National Park, California.
Read more...

References

  1. "The limits to tree height", Koch et al. Letters to Nature, April 2004 (pdf)
  2. http://www.nativetreesociety.org/bigtree/new_worlds_tallest.htm
  3. http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/archive/2006/09/07/TREE.TMP
  4. BBC News: giant tree devastated by fire
  5. http://www.gianttrees.com.au/new_tallest_tree.html
  6. Nick Sabadosh' weblog
  7. The New Yorker, article "Tall for its age", Richard Preston, October 6, 2006 (pdf)
  8. "Welcome to the Centurion!", Forestry Tasmania, 10/10/2008

Scientific classification

Sequoia sempervirens (D. Don) Endlicher 1847.
Synonynms Taxodium sempervirens D. Don in Lambert 1824 (Watson 1993), Sequoia sempervirens (Lambert) Endlicher (Peattie 1950). It is the only species in the genus Sequoia Endlicher 1847. Horticultural varieties (cultivars) have been selected, like 'adpressa', 'glauca', 'nana pendula', 'pendula' en 'prostrata'.

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