Being awed by the world’s largest tree, the giant sequoia, is an experience that is hard to describe. It is amazing to think that a living thing can be so massive and old. The Sierra redwoods, which are the largest of these trees, can be found in California’s rugged Sierra Nevada mountain range, and they are capable of holding a stadium full of people.
The Northern Hemisphere was once home to thriving Redwoods. These ancient trees have been around for over 200 million years, dating back to the Jurassic period. Today, the last remaining giant Sequoia trees on Earth can be found on land that’s roughly the size of Cleveland (48,000 acres). There are about 73 groves scattered along the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountain range.
In Placer County of Tahoe National Forest, the northernmost sequoia trees can be found, while the southernmost ones grow in Giant Sequoia National Monument. The discovery of the giant sequoia was made public in 1852 at Calaveras Big Trees State Park, where unfortunately one of the trees, called the Discovery Tree, was chopped down in 1853. It was determined to be 1,244 years old and its stump was so large that it was used as a dance floor.
Some sequoia forests were logged in the late 1800s and early 1900s, but it didn’t go smoothly. The trees often broke apart when they fell due to their brittleness and weight. The remaining wood was only used for low-value purposes like shingles, fence posts, or matchsticks. However, after Sequoia National Park was established, tourism provided a better reason to protect the trees.
In the field of biology, there are some magnificent giant sequoia groves that have managed to survive over time. These can be found in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, Giant Sequoia National Monument, Calaveras Big Trees State Park, and Yosemite National Park. These trees grow at elevations ranging from 1,400 to 2,150 meters (4,600 to 7,050 feet) and can live up to 3,000 years old!
Giant sequoias are known for their impressive size and ability to grow quickly, which is due in part to their long lifespan. These trees require a significant amount of water to thrive, which they primarily receive from winter snowpack in the Sierra region that seeps into the soil. It’s important to note that giant sequoias need well-drained soil, so walking around their base can harm them by compacting the soil around their shallow roots and preventing them from accessing sufficient water.
Giant sequoias have adapted to defend themselves against natural threats, allowing them to survive for thousands of years. Their massive size protects them from being blown over by the wind and their thick bark contains tannins that protect against fire and insect damage. Fire is actually an important element in giant sequoia forests. Seedlings need nutrient-rich soil, lots of sunlight, and a clear area to thrive, which periodic wildfires help to create. However, recent fire suppression policies have led to the growth of dense, brushy undergrowth that reduces the likelihood of giant sequoia regeneration. To learn more about the impacts of fire on giant sequoias, visit our Giant Sequoia and Fire page.