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Trees of Yosemite (1932, 1948) by Mary Curry Tresidder

[Redwood Family]

Giant Sequoia

Sequoia gigantea Dec.

Giant Sequoia or Big Tree Cone. Slightly Less Than Natural Size
Giant Sequoia or Big Tree Cone
Slightly Less Than Natural Size
Grizzly Giant (Big Tree or Giant Sequoia)
Grizzly Giant (Big Tree or Giant Sequoia)

Topping the list of its conifers with the monarch of them all, Yosemite has within its boundaries three groves of the Giant Sequoia, trees that were seedlings when Alexander sighed for more worlds to conquer, had become mere saplings when Christ was born, and had attained the grandeur of their prime long before Columbus set eyes upon this continent.

Aside from the mantle of the centuries, the Giant Sequoia has a claim to reverence by virtue of its beauty, its dignity, its majesty. The pines and firs about it represent an even older family of trees; but the Giant Sequoia dominates and subdues them into a background for itself, a scale from which its greatness may be appreciated. It is not merely an ordinary tree raised to the nth power, but is the apotheosis of a tree.

Although there are earlier claims to the honor, the accepted discoverer of the Giant Sequoia was A. T. Dowd, a miner, who was led by the trail of a wounded bear into the Calaveras Grove in the spring of 1852. The story made its way into the newspapers, but it was not until the next year that the unknown giants were given an official description and a name. An Englishman named William Lobb, seeing some material in the possession of Dr. Albert Kellogg, became interested. He made a hasty trip to the Calaveras Grove, and took home with him some specimens and seedlings. He gave these to a botanist, one John Lindley, who published a description of the tree as a species representing a new genus, which he called “Wellingtonia,” adding the species name gigantea. The following year (1854) a French botanist, J. Decaisne, recognized it as a species of Sequoia, the genus established for the Coast Redwood about five years earlier, and named it “Sequoia gigantea.” Meanwhile Lindley’s name for the tree had stirred up a fury of popular resentment in this country. By some it was classed as a Taxodium, the family of the Bald Cypress, with washingtonium as the specific name, and when it was referred to the genus Sequoia, Sequoia washingtonia was urged as right and proper; Sudworth adopts this latter naming. However, Sequoia gigantea is now generally recognized.

To go back a little farther, the Coast Redwood was likewise referred to the genus Taxodium at first. Menzies found this tree in 1794; the Lambert for whom Douglas named the Sugar Pine described it as Taxodium sempervirens in 1823, and in 1847 one Stephen Endlicher, a German botanist, placed it in a new genus, making it Sequoia sempervirens. The word “Sequoia” is generally supposed to have been derived from the name of Sequoyah, a Cherokee Indian who transcribed the language of his people in phonetic symbols. In their book, Big Trees,* Colonel White and Judge Fry list seventy-one groves of Sequoia gigantea, scattered through the Sierra Nevada from a point near Tahoe to Deer Creek, south of the Kern and Kaweah rivers. In the northerly section of the state the groves are, for the most part, smaller and farther apart; toward the south they are in a more continuous belt, interrupted only here and there. They are all in the upper part of the Transition Zone; great rivers and mighty canyons divide them; they are found nowhere else in the world today. Why they should occur in these groups, without an occasional tree interspersed between groves, is one of the problems connected with the Giant Sequoia.

They, with the Coast Redwood, are representatives of a genus once widespread in North America, Europe, and Asia, as fossil remains show, and they, like the Coast Redwood, are not only alive but vigorous. Their seedlings thrive where they have access to exposed soil, plenty of moisture and sunlight, and adequate protection withal. Reproduction is going on at a much higher rate in the southern groves than in the northern, for reasons unknown.

In the Yosemite National Park are three groves. The Mariposa Grove, by far the largest and best known of the three, is a few miles south and east of Wawona; its trees are distributed in two groves, with a neutral band between which contains no Big Trees at all. There are approximately two hundred trees over ten feet in diameter at the base in the two groves.* This grove was made known to the world by Galen Clark in 1857; he was later appointed Guardian of the Grove and of the Yosemite Valley, under the State Board of Commissioners. The grove may have been traversed earlier by prospectors; one R. Hogg, a hunter, claimed to have seen some of its trees in 1855. Galen Clark, at any rate, recognized their importance and made them known.

The Tuolumne Grove, on the Big Oak Flat Road, comprises about twenty-five large trees, and the Merced Grove, which has only about twenty such trees, is yet a most charming group by reason of its setting in a mountain hollow, through which flows a delightful stream with its banks thick with azaleas. The tallest of our Sequoia gigantea is in the Merced Grove, near the cabin; the second is in the Tuolumne Grove. According to Francis P. Farquhar, members of the Walker expedition who crossed the Sierra Nevada in 1833 may have passed through either the Merced or the Tuolumne Grove, as they reported seeing “trees of the Redwood species incredibly large.”

Speculation about the age of these trees ran riot earlier, and such trees as the Grizzly Giant were estimated to be five to eight thousand years old; today the consensus is more conservative, something over three thousand years. This is based on a count of the rings in many fallen or felled trees, with an estimate of the average increase in growth. Thus Professor Jepson allowed twenty years to an inch, in a careful survey, but with a caution against accepting this without the confirmation of the count of the rings. At the door of the Yosemite Museum is a cross section of a Giant Sequoia that dates from A.D. 925, with events in history marked at corresponding points on this tree’s diameter.

Turning to the size, we find further arguments, for when a Sequoia is measured around the base, projecting roots, as well as the root swelling near the ground, make it hard to establish a standard measurement. Then, too, some advance the claims of a board-foot measurement in determining the real size of the tree, and not merely its girth.

The measurements of several of the largest trees in the Mariposa Grove are included on the opposite page, giving the size both at the base and at a point ten feet above the ground.

The Grizzly Giant, largest of these trees, has several competitors for the title of the largest tree in the world; of these, the General Sherman Tree, in the Sequoia National Park, is best known. The General Sherman’s diameter at the base is 32 feet, 6 inches, and at 16 feet above the base is 24 feet. Its height is 267 feet, 6 inches.

The Wawona Tree, through which the road passes, shares fame with the Grizzly Giant. The tunnel, 26 feet long, was cut through this tree in June 1878, enlarging the burnt-out area which already existed in the trunk.

Name of Tree Girth
at Base
at Base
Diameter at
Ten Feet
above Ground
(Feet) (Feet) (Feet) (Feet)
Grizzly Giant94.230.020.7200
faithful Couple95.830.619.7244
General Sheridan78.024.813.4258
St. Louis78.625.016.1277
Mark Twain55.717.713.0274

In shape the young Sequoia is a symmetrical cone, with its somewhat scaly-surfaced bark giving a grayish or purplish tinge to the trunk. As it reaches a diameter of about a foot, the bark thickens into the reddish-brown for which it is famous. The bark of a large tree is often a foot in thickness, sometimes more. It has very little resin in it, unlike the bark of most conifers, and this thick bark seems to serve as an asbestos covering for the cambium layer through which the sap flows. Hence comes a large measure of the apparent invulnerability of the Giant Sequoias; while they may be burned here and there, the flames do not spread and the wound is healed, ar its edges become grown over, within a short space of time. In bark and wood, and even in the cones, there is a high percentage of tannin, which seems to serve as an additional protection against the attacks of ordinary enemies of the trees. As the tree ages, the lower branches are shaded out and a few of those remaining take on greater size. The trunk tapers only slightly, and the first great branches are proportioned to it. On the Grizzly Giant the first important limb, over a hundred feet above the ground, is six feet in diameter. The top is like an inverted bowl, a leafy dome.

The wood of the mature tree is rose-red, gradually turning dull after being exposed to the air. It is much more brittle than that of the Coast Redwood; on the fall of a Giant Sequoia, the trunk may be broken into many pieces in transverse fractures, while the Redwood splits longitudinally.

The leaves are awl-shaped and clothe the branchlet closely, overlapping along it. On young trees the tips often turn outward slightly. The sprays are not so flat as those of the cedar. In color the dense foliage is a bluish-green.

Staminate and ovulate flowers are borne on different branches of the same tree; both are small, rather scaly bodies. The cones are compactly formed of thick, woody scales, and are egg-shaped. They mature at the close of the second summer, open just enough to shed their seeds, which they do gradually, and often remain on the tree for some time longer. They are one to two and a half inches long. Five to seven narrow, winged seeds are borne under each scale; “millions are ripened annually by a single tree,” says John Muir, “and in a fruitful year the product of one of the northern groves would be enough to plant all the mountain ranges of the world.”

Judge Fry and Colonel White tell of an experiment with cones and seeds in the Giant Forest. They studied a dozen cones upon the tree, and found that they released their seeds, a few each year. The last of the twelve fell at the end of fourteen years; it still had seven seeds within its scales, and five of them were still capable of growth when planted.

There are no native specimens of the Giant Sequoia on the floor of the Yosemite Valley, but a number have been planted. There are two in the Old Village, one dating from the ’nineties and the other from the beginning of this century. On the Ahwahnee grounds, near the campfire, is one which was planted in the early ’nineties and is now about seventy-five feet in height, with its top still conical. Several small trees along the west side of the parking area were set out in 1927. These are all too young to show the characteristic bark of the mature tree, but there is a beautiful piece of bark among the exhibits at the Yosemite Museum, in addition to the cross section at the door.

My own most vivid memory of the Giant Sequoia goes back to a camping trip. We came into the Mariposa Grove by some little-used trail that brought us unexpectedly upon the Grizzly Giant. The great tree stood in full sunshine upon the hillside, unquestioned king of all the trees around it, and we seemed to have found again

    the morning of the world,
When earth was nigher heaven than now.

From the first golden shafts of sunlight to the ruddy glow of sunset—one must go all through the day with these trees to reach a realization of them. And by moonlight they take on an added height and beauty that makes them even more the creatures of the Golden Age.

* Stanford University Press, Stanford, California, 1930.

* Report of Alfred Bellen to the Superintendent of Yosemite National Park, October 1930.

† Quoted in Fry and White, Big Trees, page 8.

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