Home A - Z FAQ Art Prints Online Library Discussion Forum Muir Weather Maps About Search
Online Library: Title Author California Geology History Indians Muir Mountaineering Nature Management

Next: Chapter 18IndexPrevious: Chapter 16

In the Heart of the Sierras by James M. Hutchings (1888)



Their age unknown, into what depths of time
Might Fancy wander sportively, and deem
Some Monarch-Father of this grove set forth
His tiny shoot, when the primeval flood
Receded from the old and changed the earth.
Mrs. S. C. Connor’s Legend of California.
The whole creation is a mystery.
Sir Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici.
Our best impressions of grand or beautiful sights are always enhanced by their communication to sympathetic and appreciative minds.
Abel Stevens, Life of Madame de StaŽl, Chap. XXII

As four different routes to the Yo Semite Valley pass through, or near, one or other of the Big Tree Groves; and inasmuch as all who are fond of botanical studies would like to consider the peculiarities of this interesting genus, I have thought that it would probably be most acceptable to devote this chapter exclusively to their discussion.

As stated in the preceding chapter, it is to Mr. A. T. Dowd, a hunter, to whom the honor is due of discovering this remarkable species, in 1852. Shortly after their discovery was made known, the California Academy of Sciences of San Francisco obtained and transmitted illustrative specimens of its cones and foliage to Prof. Asa Gray, of Cambridge, Massachusetts; and to Dr. John Torrey, of Columbia College, New York; but these were lost on the voyage. The next year Mr. William Lobb, an English botanist, was sent to California, by Mr. James Veitch, of the Royal Exotic Nursery, Chelsea, England, as a collector of plants; who

Cone and foliage of the Big Trees—ordinary size.
forwarded specimens of the seeds, cones, and foliage of the Big Trees, to the firm he represented; who placed them in the hands of the eminent English botanist, Dr. Lindley, for examination and classification. As Dr. Lindley was the first to describe them (in the Gardener’s Chronicle of December 24, 1853), thinking it a new genus, he named it Wellingtonia gigantea, after His Grace the Duke of Wellington, then recently deceased. Apart from the questionable taste of naming a purely American tree, discovered by an American, after an English nobleman, however exalted he might deservedly be in the estimation of his, countrymen, subsequent
No. 1 represents the cone of the Sequoia gigantea, and No. 2 that of the Sequoia sempervirens. Natural size. No. 1 represents the male flower of the Sequoia gigantea, and No. 2 that of the Sequoia sempervirens. Natural size..
No. 1 represents the cone of the Sequoia gigantea
and No. 2 that of the Sequoia sempervirens. Natural
No. 1 represents the male
flower of the Sequoia gigan-
, and No. 2 that of the Se-
quoia sempervirens
. Natural
[* Veitch’s Manual of Coniferae.]
closer analysis proved that it belonged to a genus already classified, and named, by the famous botanist, Endlicher, and known as the Redwood, Sequoia sempervirens (the Taxodium sempervirens of Lambert). The generic similarity between the Big Tree and the Redwood determines them to belong to the same genus, Sequoia. Outside of England, therefore, the Big Tree is now known as the Sequoia gigantea; that and the Sequoia sempervirens being the only representatives of the genus, the flowers and cones of which differ in nothing except size, as clearly indicated in the above engravings.

Although botanical investigation claims that nearly all pines require two years for flowering and the ripening of their fruit, for seed-bearing purposes, and the Sequoias three, Mr. W. M. Whitley, for several seasons a resident as well as visitor of the Mariposa Big Tree Grove, after closely watching the annual progress and development of different clusters of cones, contends that the Sequoia requires four, instead of three years, to bring it to perfection.


Sequoyah was the name of a Cherokee Indian chief, of mixed blood, who lived in Will’s Valley, at the northeastern corner of Alabama; and who became famous to the world as the inventor of an alphabet of eighty-six characters, each representing a syllable, for the purpose of supplying his tribe with a written language. This language is still in use among the Cherokees. He died in 1843, at the age of 73 years. His intellectual and inventive prominence exalted him as far above his people as the lofty redwoods of the Coast Range towered above other forest trees; and this coincidence suggested to Endlicher the propriety of honorably perpetuating the name of this memorable chief, through one of the most valuable and imposing productions of the vegetable kingdom. Hence the name, Sequoia, now made generic by its application to both species of the genus.


The Big Trees do not grow in one continuous belt, like the pines and firs, for instance; but in groups, some of which, as the South Grove and Tuolumne, are nearly forty miles apart; and generally in sheltered hollows, below the tops of ridges. These groups are ten in number; and, commencing northerly at the one first discovered, run southerly as follows: The Calaveras, South Grove, Tuolumne, Merced, Mariposa, Fresno, Dinky, King’s River, New King’s River, and Kaweah or Tule Group. The latter, being scattered over low ridges and valleys, only separated by deep cañons, for over sixty miles, and having a breadth of five, might more correctly be called a belt; with a vertical range of nearly two thousand five hundred feet. Their altitude, like the upper timber-line of the Sierras, is more or less climatic, and regulated somewhat by latitude; for, while some of the Calaveras group are less than five thousand feet above sea level, the Grizzly Giant in the Mariposa Grove, by no means the highest in location, is nearly six thousand, and those of the Tule Grove over eight thousand. This applies to the native habitat of all forest trees of the Sierras, even when having a range, in altitude, of from two to three thousand feet, as in the Mile Grove; for, while the upper edge of the timber forest at Mt. Shasta is only eight thousand feet, that immediately east of Yo Semite is eleven thousand, while on the ridges near Fishermen’s Peak (the proposed new Mt. Whitney) it is twelve thousand two hundred feet above sea level. Latitude, therefore, as well as altitude becomes an important factor in the distribution of species, in the forests of the Sierras, and should be allowed due consideration when determining their habitat.


If, as generally conceded by botanists, the concentric rings of trees interpret their annual growth, they at once suggest an interesting inquiry as to the probable age of the Sequoias. The distance of the rings between is sometimes very marked; inasmuch as, while some do not show more than six or eight to the inch, others will give forty. Rich soil and favorable location may account for the former, and the reverse for the latter. The concentric rings of the stump of the original Big Tree in the Calaveras Grove, prove its annual growth to have been more than double that of others in the same group; therefore, while intimating that it was cut down in its youth, perhaps a thousand years before it had attained its full development, it is suggestive of the possibility of many eminent scientists having been misled in their estimate of the approximate age of these vegetable giants. I have a piece of wood in my Yo Semite cabin, taken from one of the decumbent trees in the Mariposa Grove, that will average thirty-four rings to the inch. I have counted such in numerous specimens, and am satisfied that the average number of concentric rings in the Sequoias, would be about twenty-four to the inch; supposing, therefore, the diameter of the tree to be twenty-five feet (the distance across the stump in the Calaveras Grove), measuring from the heart to the outer edge of the sap, the half being twelve feet six inches, would make its astonishing age three thousand six hundred years; and, if thirty feet in diameter (there are many of these), it would be four thousand three hundred and twenty years.

There is no apparent probability of this species ever becoming extinct, as its fecundity exceeds that of any other forest tree in the Sierras.

Notwithstanding the striking resemblance between the two species of this genus, in habit, form, wood, cones, and foliage, the “Redwood” has never been found growing in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, or the “Big Tree” in the Coast Range.


There can be no question of the very rapid growth of the Sequoia gigantea, inasmuch as the species was unknown until 1852, and no seeds from it were sent to England before 1853; yet trees have been grown there that have attained an altitude and circumference that are remarkable: For instance, at the country seat of the Earl of Devon, at Powderham Castle, near Exeter, England, there is one specimen that exceeds sixty feet in height and ten in girth, at three feet from the ground; and that growth has been attained in less than one-third of a century. There are many other notable examples in Kent, Devon, Gloucester, Sussex, and other counties of England, where this species seems thoroughly to acclimatize.

There is one striking difference between the Sequoia gigantea, and the Sequoia sempervirens, in habit; the former grows only from seeds, and the latter from both seeds and suckers, and mainly from the latter, in their native forests.


Notwithstanding the exceeding softness, lightness, and fineness of texture of its timber, its durability is unequaled. In the Fresno Grove there lies an immense Sequoia, within three feet of whose sides there sprung up a thrifty young giant, which, when it reached the prostrate tree, as it could not thrust it out of its way, grew over it; so that when last seen by the writer it had grown across it six feet and ten inches; yet the heart-wood of that prostrate tree was as sound as the day that it fell. This species, therefore, will, at no distant day, be cultivated for its valuable qualities as a timber tree; both from its durability, fineness of texture, and general excellence for finishing purposes.

There is a dense resinous gum that exudes from the body of the tree in considerable quantity, where fire has consumed the wood, and much of this has run into the burned cavity; and which, becoming ignited, has largely contributed to the destruction of the tree. This gum is of a crimson-tinted chocolate color; but its relative uses, or commercial value, have not yet been determined. A similar substance drops from the cone in fragmentary crystals, when it is ripe.

Although especial prominence has been given here to the Sequoia gigantea or Big Tree, owing to its being one of the remark able forest products of the Sierras, and within the circle or round of Yo Semite travel, there can exist no possible intention of slighting its big twin brother of the Coast Range, the Sequoia sempervirens, or Redwood; inasmuch as, although separate in habitat, there is but little inequality between the two species, either in stature, texture, imposing presence, or other valuable qualities. They are, therefore, twin representatives of the finest genus of forest trees yet known to man. Yet, notwithstanding this, and their being the new wonder of the world, found within a limited area on this coast only, humiliating confession has to be made, that, from business greed and lack of foresight in the government, these glorious Sequoian forests are so rapidly disappearing that, within a quarter, or at most a third of a century, they will have been swept from off the earth.


The Sequoias are proven to have existed in the Tertiary Period, as fossil remains of its cones and foliage are in the possession of Mr. Carruthers, Curator of Botany at the British Museum, London; and fossil specimens have also been recently found in the Calaveras Grove. The so-called “Petrified Forest,” near Calistoga, Napa County, represents the fossiliferous condition of Sequoia sempervirens.

Next: Chapter 18IndexPrevious: Chapter 16

Home A - Z FAQ Art Prints Online Library Discussion Forum Muir Weather Maps About Search
Online Library: Title Author California Geology History Indians Muir Mountaineering Nature Management