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Giant Sequoias and Redwoods: The Largest and Tallest Trees

Redwood trees in California's Big Basin Redwoods State Park
Redwood trees reach the sky in California's Big Basin Redwoods State Park.
Credit: Felix Lipov | Shutterstock

Giant sequoias and California redwoods (also called coast redwoods) are nature’s skyscrapers. These enormous trees exist primarily in Northern California, and though they have a number of common characteristics, including distinctive cinnamon-red bark, they are different species.

One giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum), known as General Sherman, is the world's largest tree, while a redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) called Hyperion is the tallest.

Giant sequoias

Giant sequoias can grow to be about 30 feet (9 meters) in diameter and more than 250 feet (76 meters) tall. The biggest of these behemoths is General Sherman, a giant sequoia in Sequoia National Park. General Sherman stands 275 feet (84 meters) tall, has a 102-foot (31 meters) circumference, and weighs an incredible 2.7 million pounds (1.2 million kilograms). Giant sequoias can live to 3,000 years, with the oldest on record living more than 3,500 years.

Mature sequoias lack branches on the lower half of their trunks. Sequoia trunks taper as they rise, forming a rounded top where individual branches sweep downward. Their green leaves are small, scale-like, and arranged in spirals. Both male and females cones are carried on the same tree.

A woman stands against a giant sequoia in Sequoia National Park in California.
A woman stands against a giant sequoia in Sequoia National Park in California.
Credit: Rob van Esch | View full size image

Sequoias grow naturally along the western slope of the Sierra Nevada mountains, between 5,000 and 7,000 feet above sea level and far inland. That elevation provides the trees with dry mountain air necessary for their cones to open and release seeds. The snowpack from the Sierra Nevada provides sequoias with the thousands of gallons of water they drink every day. Sequoias have shallow roots and require well-drained soil.

Because of its brittle texture, the sequoia is not a valuable lumber species. It was, nevertheless, logged extensively around the turn of the 20th century. Originally, sequoias could be found throughout the Northern Hemisphere. Today, they are found only in 77 scattered groves in Northern California. Among the places that preserve giant sequoias are Sequoia National Forest, Sequoia National Park, and Giant Sequoia National Monument.

Redwoods

These tallest of trees reach heights of more than 350 feet (107 meters). The tallest tree in the world is named Hyperion, which reaches 379.7 feet (115.7 meters). Redwoods can achieve a diameter of 24 feet (7 meters), and 1.6 million pounds (725,700 kg). These giants can live to be 2,000 years old and have graced the planet for more than 240 million years. Though they once thrived throughout much of the Northern Hemisphere, today redwoods are only found on the coast from central California through southern Oregon. They do not live more than 50 miles inland, and are usually found in long belts, rather than small groves.

True to their name, coast redwoods need a moderate, coastal climate to survive. They require the area’s frequent fog to protect them from dry spells and drought. Like sequoias, redwoods require abundant water to drink and have shallow root systems. Redwoods, however, get their water from rain rather than snowmelt, and therefore require consistent rainfall throughout the year. They even “create” their own rain by trapping fog in their lofty branches. With the right amount of moisture, redwoods can grow two or three feet in a year, making them one of the fastest-growing conifers in the world.

In contrast to their size, redwoods have extremely small cones — about one inch long. They have appropriately large root systems, however, often extending 100 miles (161 kilometers) and intertwining with the roots of other redwoods. Baby redwoods often sprout at their parents’ base, latching onto their roots for nutrients. For this reason, they often grow in circular clusters sometimes called fairy rings.

The coast redwood’s lumber has been highly valued historically. It is durable, resistant to rot and termites, non-warping, and relatively soft. For this reason, it has been extensively logged. Since logging began in the 1850s, 95 percent of old-growth coast redwoods have been cut down, according to the Sempervirens Fund. Today, many redwoods exist in protected forests and parks.

Interesting facts

  • In 1881, in Yosemite National Park, a tunnel was built through the Wawona “Tunnel” tree. It was so big that people could drive their carriages — later their cars — right through. The 2,100-year-old tree fell in 1969 under heavy snowfall (some blame the tunnel’s damage). Today, there are three other privately owned tunnel trees that charge a fee to drive through.
  • A fallen coast redwood will often send up new shoots, growing new trees off of its trunk. This is called a candelabra tree.
  • Redwoods and giant sequoias were used to build many of the original buildings in San Francisco, Oakland, and Sacramento in the latter 1800s.
  • Redwoods and giant sequoias are adept at — though by no means immune to — surviving fire. Their bark contains no flammable pitch or resin and is extremely thick.

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