June 9, 2014 California’s Sequoia trees are quite a sight
Of 80,000 different kinds of trees on our planet, there can only be one king of the race. The Sequoias of the Sierra Nevadas hold that undisputed title.
It is fitting that the largest trees in the world—Sequoias, or as they are affectionately called, “Big Trees”—live on the spectacular snowy Sierra Nevada mountains, the backbone of California. On the west side, at the elevation of between 4,500 and 7,200 feet above sea level, 18 feet of snow fall each year. And incidentally, it’s this snow which sustains most of our 40 million inhabitants and millions of tourists each year.
So how big is Big Tree? Gigantic. An average tree can be 270 feet tall with a base 20 feet across. If a colossal ice age Columbia mammoth sauntered around the corner, it would seem small in the stupendous Sequoia forests.
Sequoias are one of the rarest trees, not just in America, but in the world. Their lineage dates back 100 million years or so. Fossil records clearly show of their existence in Europe, Asia, Greenland and the U.S. Midwest. Despite climate change, geologic upheavals and over-harvesting between 1850 and 1900, Sequoias thrive in about 75 groves along a 260-mile stretch on the western slopes of the Sierras.
These trees are exceptional but not just because of their size. They are extremely fast growing with extensive root systems. They probably reach 275 feet by the time they are 500 years old. The can live for over 3,000 years; that’s almost 1.1 million sunrises!
They have evolved with fire, and without fire the species future is in jeopardy. Their cones remain on the tree, shut tight, with viable seeds for up to two decades. The heat of the fire melts the resin around the cone scales and provides bare ground for the seeds to germinate upon. In addition, Sequoia cones are a critical food source for Douglas squirrels or chickarees.
There are few kinds of trees that can be hit by 100,000,000 volts of electricity—a bolt of lightning— and live. Sequoias can. No birds, mammals or disease can bother these giants. The wood is unpalatable for insects and fungus. The reason they eventually tumble is that they loose their feet. Repeated surface fires can damage structural roots enabling high winds and heavy snow loadings, especially in late spring when soil can be soggy, to force them over.
The largest living animals on Earth are blue whales—a couple blue whales would fit inside General Sherman, the largest living Sequoia, and tree of any kind, in the world.
This summer, consider visiting Sequoia National Park, it’s about a four-hour drive from Malibu, and find out why Sequoias are the noblest of a noble race.
Earth Dr Reese Halter is an award-winning broadcaster and distinguished conservation biologist. His latest book with Chris Maser is Life, The Wonder of it All
Text © by Dr Reese Halter 2014. All rights reserved.