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History of the giant sequoia

Paleobotanic evolution

The conifer tree species of the subfamily Sequoioideae were once widespread along the northern hemisphere. Fossil remains of the genus Sequoia from the Jurassic Period (180 to 135 million years ago) have been found in North America, Greenland, and the Eurasian continent, suggesting vast forests.
Only three species survived the Ice Ages: the giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) and the coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) in California and the dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) in remote areas in Southwest China.
More about the coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens).
More about the dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides).

Discovery

The earliest known written reference to the giant trees in California was made in 1833 by an expedition of hunters. This was found in the diary of the explorer J. K. Leonard; the reference does not mention any locality, but his route would have taken him through the Calaveras Grove. This discovery was not publicized. In 1850 John M. Wooster would have carved his initials in the bark of a tree in the Calaveras Grove but again, this received no publicity.

The first certain and widely documented sighting of the giant sequoia took place in the spring of 1852. A hunter who was chasing a bear in the Sierra Nevada mountains, entered the woods now known as 'North Grove' in Calaveras State Park. The hunter, Augustus T. Dowd, could not believe his eyes and once he arrived at the nearby mining camp, no one would believe him before seeing the enormous trees themselves. The trees gained instant popularity and became well known by the general public. Roads were constructed and a lot of loggers got dollar signs in their eyes.

In the following years, more and larger giant sequoia groves were discovered, although it needs to be said that these forest were known for centuries by the local Indian tribes. They called the tree Wawona, an onomatopoeia that imitates the sound of the Northern Spotted Owl, which was believed by the Yosemite Indians to be the guardian of the forest. The tribes who lived along the Tule River called the tree Toos-pung-ish of Hea-mi-withic.

The old sequoia first seen by Augustus T. Dowd, was named "The Discovery Tree". After withstanding storms and forest fires for many centuries, in 1852 the tree encountered a western man. A year later the tree was felled...
It took five men and 22 days (sketch on the left) and after counting the tree rings it appeared that this tree was 1300 years old. The remaining stump was used as a dance floor...

 

It tells a lot about the mentality of the time. Now the felling of the largest giant sequoias sounds like a sad and respectless waste, but is understandable in the zeitgeist of the 19th century.

Think about this: in that time of limited communication a lot of stories reached the American-European east coast of the U.S. from the "Far West" during the Californian goldrush. Massive gold mountains! Gigantic trees! Huge waterfalls where the water runs to the top! The European immigrants quickly developed a "first see, then believe" mentality.
In that period there also was an unlimited optimism: by the large technological advances of the time the first railroads were constructed, large bridges, ships, and the first skyscrapers were built, canals were dug. For the first time, men got control over nature and was able to shape its environment. The fact that now it was possible for men to fell down such large trees was for some a moral obligation to do so.

A number of old growth trees were felled exactly to prove their existence (and to make money in the process). In 1891, for example, the "Mark Twain Tree" was felled. A slice of its trunk was sent to the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and another slice to the British Museum of Natural History in Kensington, London.

Consciousness about long term preservation, that men can actually change the entire climate of our planet and the responsability that comes with it, and the awareness that the earth's capacity to handle men's hunger for destruction and waste disposal is limited only came later.

Timber!

Almost everywhere in the remote mountain valleys of the Sierra Nevada small and large timber mills and farms mushroomed. While the first were felling numerous old growth trees that were many centuries old, the latter brought sheep and goats that largely destroyed the grasslands.

The giant sequoias wood yield was minimal: because of the low wood quality if often fell into pieces when the tree fell. The image on the left shows such a scene in Nelder Grove. The loggers tried to avoid this as much as possible by digging trenches and filling them with branches to cushion the blow.

The soft, brittle wood was mainly used to make small poles to be used in vineyards and not as a construction material since it was too soft.

In a lot of these places you can still see these logging remains after more than 100 years: due to its high tannin content these trees have proven to be very resistant to wood rot.


John Muir (photo) (1838-1914), a Scot who during his entire life made efforts to preserve the natural forests of the Sierra Nevada, has fought hard against the logging and the grazing by cattle. Eventually he was able to turn the Yosemite area into a National Park, together with a number of other arrangements. He was standing at the cradle of the National Park system in the U.S. and was founder of the "The Sierra Club", that nowadays is one of the most important conservation organizations in the United States. Still he could not prevent the Tuolumne rivier to be dammed and flooding the pristine Hetch Hetchy Valley to generate electricity for San Francisco.

Due to efforts like these of John Muir and the marginal yields of these giants, the logging of giant sequoias was largely stopped around the years 1920.

Still, until the years 1980 young specimens of the giant sequoia were logged. The general public became more and more offended, and the call for more national parks, state parks, and state monuments became louder. Nowadays most of the few remaining old growth giant sequoia groves are protected and the logging of these trees is prohibited by law.

Choice of the name Sequoiadendron

Because the species was not known by botanists before 1852, this plant species was not described scientifically. In 1852 Albert Kellogg of the California Academy of Sciences received some branches from the newly discovered Calaveras Grove. Reportedly there were no cones or flowers, so Kellogg wanted to postpone describing the species a little longer until he had a full collection of plant parts. He was planning to call the tree Washingtonia gigantea, in honor of the first president of the U.S. In the meantime, he showed the branches to William Lobb. He had just arrived from England to make a plant collection journey for the British tree nursery Veitch & Co.

As opposed to Kellogg who did not visit the Calaveras Grove immediately, Lobb rushed his way over and collected all necessary parts, a large number of seeds, and even two little trees. He returned to San Francisco and without saying a word about it to the American botanists, he returned to England. He arrived on December 15, 1853 and gave a part of his collection to John Lindley, professor of Botany at the University of London. Soon after he got the material, on December 24, Lindley made an offical, formal description of the species. He named the tree Wellingtonia gigantea in honor of Arthur Wellesley, the British duke of Wellington, who had defeated the French Emperor Napoléon Bonaparte in Waterloo, Belgium and had died the previous year.

As a matter of fact, this name was invalid because Wellingtonia was already in use since 1840 for the plant Wellingtonia arnottiana in the Sabiaceae family, but that was not known at the time. By the way, Washingtonia would have been invalid too, because it was already in use for a certain genus of palms.
Furious Americans
Lindley's publication triggered a storm of protest from American botanists who were outraged that the world's largest tree had been named after an English war hero by a botanist who had never seen the tree. The Americans promptly published a spate of different names, none of which are legitimate under current rules of botanical nomenclature.

The French Joseph Decaisne intervened, who in 1854 published the species as Sequoia gigantea, a plausible assignment that ultimately won acceptance by British botanists.

Thereafter Wellingtonia slowly disappeared from the literature. Only in U.K., the name is very persistent. On the image on the right you can see a name tag in Benmore Botanic Garden, Scotland.

But, to complicate things more, Sequoia gigantea was also not a legitimate name, having been previously used by Endlicher to describe a horticultural variety of the coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens), and this problem was not satisfactorily resolved until the American John T. Buchholz described Sequoiadendron in 1939. This name derives from the already described genus Sequoia and dendron (δενδρον), the Greek word for 'tree'.

Buchholz' decision to establish a new genus apart from Sequoia was widely criticized by the old guard of California botanists, but his arguments - based on substantial differences in the development of Sequoia and Sequoiadendron seed cones - have subsequently won general acceptance.

In the U.S. the tree is known as 'giant redwood', 'giant sequoia', 'bigtree' or 'big tree'. In the U.K., next to the names 'giant redwood' or 'giant sequoia', the name 'Wellingtonia' is still used.

Since its discovery popular in English gardens

During the second half of the 19th century it was fashionable for European castle lords to lay out a so called English garden (also called a garden in landscape style). These gardens, influenced by Romanticism, were gardens consisting of apparent wild parts, winding paths and an abundance of plant species.

As soon as the forests of giants were discovered in the Californian mountains during the gold rush (in 1852), the giant sequoia became a very fashionable tree to plant in these gardens, that were often constructed as arboreta with lots of exotic, recently discovered trees. This explains why the oldest specimens outside their natural range can be found in European castle gardens and arboreta.

In the U.K. the oldest ones can be found. The climate is ideal and the trees are growing very fast. The tallest giant sequoias already reach 54 m (177 ft). They can be found in Benmore Botanic Garden in Scotland. The thickes ones have a girth of more than 11 m (36 ft).

Also in France the tree became a popular tree: entire avenues were planted with this tree. In Belgium the largest specimen has a girth of 9 m (30 ft) at 1.5 m height.

Giant sequoias elsewhere

Horticultural varieties or cultivars

Since the discovery of the species a number of horticultural varieties or cultivars have been selected like 'Pygmaeum', a dwarf form, 'Barabits Requiem', a broad weeping form, 'Blauer Eichzwerg', a blue form, and 'Variegatum', a variegated form, among many others.
 

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