by Amy West
If you were to strap on climbing gear and make your way up the tallest tree in the world, it would be like scaling a 35-story building. Seasoned window washers on skyscrapers might not think the 370-plus-foot coast redwood so high, but they may be surprised at what they’d find near its crown: soil, huckleberry, crickets, salamanders, seabirds and flying squirrels.
The world’s tallest tree, Sequoia sempervirens is one of 17 species in the redwood family, Cupressaceae, found in North America, East Asia and Tasmania. The giant sequoia, bald cypress, dawn redwood in China, and Japanese cedar fall in this category of soft woody plants with evergreen leaves and red-tinged, fibrous bark. Historically found in other parts of the northern hemisphere, the coast redwood (also called the California redwood) is now native only to the Pacific Northwest. Found in pockets close to the coast, its range stretches from Big Sur to an invisible line near the Chetco River, just 14 miles into Oregon. Nearly 95 percent of the coast redwoods alive today are second-growth. They abhor salty spray and crave foggy areas; thankfully so, since at least one-third of the water entering this ecosystem annually can drip down to earth from these tall stands. Studies have shown these redwoods can even absorb fog water through their upper foliage—advantageous since water inching up from the roots must battle gravity and a long journey. Climate change may be affecting the occurrence of fog in coastal California, and consequently redwoods, though some debate exists as to just how it will change.
Regardless of the future, redwoods have withstood decades of environmental hardship, staving off droughts and fires due in part to their dense and highly tannic bark (which retards both flame and insects) and interlacing root system. They often drop limbs when charred and shed their tops when they age. The tree’s reaction to damage is to send out more trunks, which can create a labyrinthian crown, such as The Redwood Creek Giant, which has 148 trunks. Most redwoods extend their family with sprouts from the main trunk, which create a “fairy ring” around the parent when it dies. These fast-growing forest sentinels can reach more than 50 feet in a couple of decades, and at around 800 years reach their maximum height. (Coast redwoods can live up to 2,200 years.) The rare albino coast redwood parasitically latches onto the roots of nearby trees.
The ecosystem the coast redwood supports high in its branches was unknown to science until the 1990s, after Humboldt State University scientist Dr. Stephen Sillett started climbing them; he even said his marriage vows atop the redwood canopy. The book The Wild Trees documents this redwood science story.
These giants also captured the interest of National Geographic explorer Mike Fay, who took a year to walk the entire 1800 miles from the southernmost redwood to the northernmost. These lofty forest dwellers are not only challenging to climb, but also apparently very hard to photograph.
Whereas the California redwood beats every tree on height, it lost on girth. The giant sequoia, the redwood’s closest cousin, which inhabits an entirely different forest, ranks as the largest tree due to the amount of wood it contains. The most massive recognized—at 25 feet in diameter and about 2500 years old—is “General Sherman” in Sequoia National Park. But before the largest coast redwoods were logged in the 1850s, it’s believed they held the record for tallest and largest. Fortunately, some wealthy people at that time had foresight enough to begin preserving sections of virgin redwood forest in what is now known as Big Basin Redwoods State Park. Known as the Sempervirens Club (later the Sempervirens Fund), the group was instrumental in creating California’s state park system.
The largest stand of old-growth redwood trees, the Grove of Titans, sits in Northern California’s Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park. The locations of many of the largest trees here are kept secret and remain the focus of ongoing studies, which include how these carbon-absorbing redwoods react to climate change.