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A Guide to the Giant Sequoias of Yosemite National Park (1949) by James W. McFarland


The name, Sequoia (the Latin spelling for Se-quo-yah), was first proposed for the coast redwoods in 1847 by the Austrian botanist, Stephen L. Endlicher. However, in 1823, an English botanist, A. B. Lambert, from specimens collected by Archibald Menzies in 1795 had mistakenly placed the tree in the same genus as the bald cypress, Taxodium, giving it the name Taxodium sempervirens. It is thought that the scientific, generic name, Sequoia, was given in tribute to a Cherokee Indian, Se-quo-yah, of marked nobility of character.

Se-quo-yah, whose English name was George Guess, was born about 1770 and died in 1843. He became a skilled silversmith and small farmer in Cherokee County, Georgia. Endlicher, who was a linguistic student as well as botanist, probably was aware that this uneducated, non-English-speaking Indian had developed, in 1821, an alphabet of 86 symbols, representing each sound in the language of his tribe. The alphabet was so simple that anyone in the tribe could quickly learn to read and write, and it is considered one of the cultural masterpieces of modern times. Se-quo-yah published the Cherokee Phoenix and also part of the New Testament in the Cherokee language. He was elected by the Cherokee Council in 1828 as their representative in Washington, where he became a highly respected citizen.

Because he lived for a time in that part of Oklahoma which was then known as Indian Territory, he is claimed by Oklahoma as one of her distinguished citizens and that state has placed a statue of Se-quo-yah in the Statuary Hall of the national Capitol. It is indeed fitting that the name of one of our original Americans should live on in the greatest and most noble of all trees.

Specimens of the giant sequoia of the Sierra Nevada were sent to England in 1853. There, the botanist, John Lindley, believing that it was sufficiently different from the coast redwood, Sequoia sempervirens,3 [3 See page 52 for a comparison of the two species. ] created a new genus, calling it Wellingtonia, in honor of the Duke of Wellington who had died the previous year. He further gave it the species name, gigantea, because of the tree’s size. In 1854, J. Decaisne, the French botanist, thought that the new species belonged to the same genus as the redwood and renamed the tree Sequoia gigantea. Later it was also given another name, Sequoia Washingtoniana. Nevertheless, the scientific name, Sequoia gigantea, was until recently generally accepted. Finally, in 1939, J. T. Buchholtz, on the basis of a careful study of the two sequoias and the fact that technically all previous names of the giant sequoia were invalid according to the rules of nomenclature, proposed the generic segregation of the two species, giving the name Sequoiadendron giganteum to the giant sequoia.

However, in line with the second edition of Standardized Plant Names, American Joint Committee on Horticultural Nomenclature, the scientific name Sequoia gigantea has the official sanction of the National Park Service, while it endorses the common name, giant sequoia given in the Check List of the Native and Naturalized Trees of the United States, 1944 edition, of the United States Forest Service.

In youth the giant sequoia has a tall, graceful, conical form, its slender trunk hidden by the branches which sweep the ground. The juvenile foliage is dark bluish-green while the purplish tinge adds interest to the bark. When the tree reaches its normal maximum height of of 250 to 300 feet, its crown broadens out, large lateral limbs are developed and the lower branches are gradually shed. As it reaches maturity the giant sequoia loses most of its smaller branches and assumes a broad conical or open oval shape with a few immense lateral limbs and large tufts of foliage. This characteristic is seen in the Grizzly Giant which has a large limb 6 feet in diameter over 95 feet above the ground. The trunks of older trees often show little taper for 100 feet or more above the large buttressed bases.

The soft, fibrous bark is a rich cinnamon brown, making it one of the most attractive features. Fluted in long vertical ridges, the sculptured columns rise branchless for a hundred feet. The bark is normally up to 15 inches thick, and may even be two feet thick where it has not been burned away by fire.4 [4 See specimens on display in the Mariposa Grove Museum or the Yosemite Museum in Yosemite Valley.] On the upper part of the trunk and on the large limbs the bark is usually not more than two inches thick, the outer thin platelets giving it a smooth burnished cast.

The wood of the giant sequoia is distinct from that of other conifers. The sapwood consists of a pale yellow band beneath the bark, whereas the heartwood is a bright, clear red, turning from darker to black with exposure. The annual growth rings are distinctly visible, except in very old trees where more recent growth may be so slight each year that the rings are almost microscopic in width. Resin canals are lacking, but the wood cells are heavily impregnated with a water-soluble, reddish, resinous gum.

Giant sequoias do not gradually die of old age. And yet, even to the casual observer, these ancient monarchs give visible evidence of their struggle for existence through the centuries. One of the characteristics is the frequent occurrence of dead tops. Most of these stag-headed crowns result from interruption of the water supply. This may be effected by partial destruction of the sapwood by fire near the base of the tree, since this portion functions as the channels through which water and minerals from the roots reach the needles, and an interruption of the conduction system may result in serious shortages. Practically all individuals with dead tops display large fire scars at their bases. An example of a giant sequoia which has sacrificed almost the entire crown in order to conserve its life may be seen just in front of the Mariposa Grove Museum porch.

The evergreen foliage of the giant sequoia consists of scale-like, sharp, pointed leaves closely overlapping each other along the twig, somewhat similar to the junipers. The bluish-green of the younger foliage ripens to a warm brownish-yellow like the incense-cedar (Libocedrus decurrens). Each leaf is 1/12 to 1/2 inch long and is closely appressed, extending outward from the axis of the stem about 1/4 of an inch.

The root system of a fallen giant sequoia is a source of never-ending surprise since there is no tap root and there seem to be relatively few roots for such a gigantic trunk. Actually, the roots extend out from the trunk in every direction for a hundred feet or more in the top few feet of soil. And yet it is truly amazing that the small root systems can support such vast bulks against the storms of centuries. The trees are nicely balanced, however, and even leaning ones generally have their largest branches concentrated away from the direction of lean. When a tree finally topples over, the roots are generally broken off close to the base of the tree.

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