Giant Sequoias: As Big As It Gets
It is not uncommon for certain events to humble us. The shock of surprise, listening to the roar of the ocean, or the death of a loved one can all do the trick. In those moments our fallibility is broadcasted right before our eyes and we feel little. It is less common for that feeling to arise by mere introduction to a plant. Giant Sequoias, famous for their red bark and gargantuan size, however, are the kinds of plants that really leave an impression!
Biggest of the Big
The largest of all Giant Sequoias (Sequioadendron giganteum) is called General Sherman, affectionately named for the Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman. And when I say biggest, I mean the biggest. Bigger than any oak. Bigger than any whale, even. In fact, depending on how you measure, General Sherman is not only the biggest tree on earth, but the largest living thing, period!
Which tree is more impressive?
The Tallest Trees
“Depending on how you measure? You mean it’s the tallest, right?”
The tallest trees on earth are actually a different kind of redwood tree that’s similar to the Giant Sequoia, and commonly confused for it as well. Giant Redwoods, also called Coastal Redwoods, are a skinnier, taller tree. They are located on the Pacific coast between mid-California and southern Oregon. If you count height alone, Coastal Redwoods are the undisputed king, with one tree named Hyperion topping out at 379 feet 4 inches. While that height is quite impressive, Coastal Redwoods compared to Giant Sequoias are sort of like comparing pool cues to Louisville Sluggers. Sure, they’re longer, but the other is greater.
• General Sherman is taller than the length of three blue whales, the world’s largest animal, all in a row
• If carved into planks of a common size, General Sherman could produce over 120 miles worth of lumber1
• The combined maximum takeoff weight of 10 Boeing 757s is less than the weight of General Sherman2.
Dimensions of General Sherman
The tree stands just shy of 250 feet from the soil, occupies a space 38.5 feet wide at its base, is estimated to weigh over 1,300 tons, and is estimated have a volume of over 52,000 cubic feet!
Now that’s a big tree!
Where Are They?
If you’re wondering why you’ve never seen these enormous trees, it’s probably because they’re very picky about where they’ll grow. Sure, you can take them and plant them in other places artificially (and they’re such a hearty specie of tree that they’ll almost certainly take hold), but these trees only grow naturally in one small region. In the United States of America, on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, primarily between 5000 and 7000 feet above sea level. That’s it. Part of the prestige of these trees is that they have such a small habitat, despite their massive size.
If you really wanted to go and see some Sequoias, the best place to do it is, undoubtedly, Sequoia National Park in California. Sequoia National Park is situated to the east of San Francisco and Yosemite National Park (in which you could also find Giant Sequoias), and borders King’s Canyon National Park to the south. In this park is where you’ll find the aptly named “Giant Forest,” a breathtaking stretch of mountainous land where every turn brings you to a tree more impressive than the next. The National Park Service does a marvelous job of maintaining a simple road up the winding mountainside such that this experience can be had not just by hikers and campers, but also by those advanced in age or with otherwise troubling handicaps.
The Giant Forest is home to General Sherman and is located in in Sequoia National Park in the state of California! http://www.nps.gov/seki/index.htm
Fire Scarred Sequoia
• While Giant Sequoias do not catch fire easily, high temperatures can burn the bark, creating fire scars several feet high near the bottom of the trees
• The entire species of Giant Sequoias actually need forest fires to thrive; without them, their cones will not open up and no seeds will be released!
• You can grow Giant Sequoias by seed (and they’ll grow much faster than in the wild) but it’ll still take 100 years to make something huge.
• Limbs are not calculated into the measurement of volume for trees, which means that the 52,000 cubic feet of trunk don’t even count the branches, many of which are the size of full-grown trees in their own right!
• The biggest threat to the life of Giant Sequoia is erosion. The trees frequently outlive the geological support around them. As wind or water removes the soil, the trees topple.
How Do They Get So Big?
Well, it had to be that some living thing would be the biggest, but there are at least two good reasons why the Giant Sequoias get as large as they do. One is that Giant Sequoias are highly resistant to fire, which provides a triple advantage for them. First, the fact that they do not easily burn means they usually don’t have to start over after a blaze. Second, they tend to be the only established plants in a recently-burned area that get to benefit from the incredibly rich soil that burned carbon matter creates. Third, there is reduced competition for light, enabling the trees to grow taller (and with wider crowns at the top). That growth means that even when other plants do begin to grow back, the Sequoia will have the most sun exposure.
The other good reason that Sequoias can grow so big is because they are so big. Tall, wide trees get the most light, which they can photosynthesize into energy for continued sustenance/growth. Giant Sequoias don’t only grow up, however, they also grow down. The intricate and sizable root systems of a Sequoia may only extend 12 to 14 feet beneath the surface of the soil, but they can occupy up to an entire acre’s worth of area!3 By stretching its roots so far, the tree assures its access to water via rainfall. The benefits of increased size on growth can be confirmed by the fact that the growth rate of Giant Sequoias increases over time.4
© 2013 Daniel J. Taylor