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Plant of the Week: Sierra Redwood (Giant Sequoia)

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture does not promote, support or recommend plants featured in "Plant of the Week." Please consult your local Extension office for plants suitable for your region.

Plant of the Week

Giant Sequoia, Sierra Redwood
Latin: Sequoiadendron giganteum

No photo available.

Nature has many spectacular sights if one is only willing to look. The scene that really blew my socks off was seeing the grandeur of the giant sequoia. I knew they were big, but I had no idea just how big. I live on the side of Mt. Sequoia in Fayetteville and the trunk of the General Sherman behemoth is as wide as my house is long and as tall as a 30 story building. By any measure, that’s impressive.

Two redwood species occur in California -- the Coastal Redwood, Sequoia sempervirens, which occupies a narrow strip of land in the fog belt in the northern half of the state, and the Giant Sequoia which occurs in the dry Sierra Nevada range at elevations from 5,000 to 8,000 feet in the west-central part of the state. For those who like the anorexic look of today’s models, the coastal redwood will be your favorite; but for those of us who can identify with a bulging waist line, the squatty giant sequoias are for you.

Naming the most impressive North American trees after a native American Cherokee was an appropriate, but somewhat surprising, choice. Chief Sequoia was born around 1770 in eastern Tennessee, where he lived when he developed his famous Cherokee alphabet. In 1818, he left his eastern home with the gentle persuasion of government policy and moved near present day Russellville in Arkansas Territory, where he ran a blacksmith shop and had a small salt spring. In 1828 he went to Washington and was one of the Cherokee delegation that signed the treaty designating the land west of a line extending north from Fort Smith to the northern boundary of Arkansas Territory as the new Cherokee Nation homeland. Sequoia relocated to his farm north of Sallisaw, OK in 1828. In 1843 Sequoia died along a trail in northern Mexico attempting to locate a lost band of Cherokee that was rumored to be in the area.

The coastal redwood was first discovered by botanists in the 1790's and was initially classified as a type of bald cypress. In 1847, the Austrian botanist Stephan Endlicher reclassified the coastal redwood into a new genus he named after Sequoia, who was reported missing and presumed dead. The big trees were not discovered until the Walker Expedition of 1833 and they were recognized as a new species of the genus Sequoia in 1854 by a French botanist name Decaisne. In 1939, a University of Illinois botanist named J. T. Buchholtz counted chromosomes and reclassified the Giant Sequoia into its own genus, Sequoiadendron.

That there are any Giant Sequoias still standing has a lot to do with physics. Loggers could hardly resist "harvesting" such forest giants, but their sheer bulk made them unusable. Several trees were felled in the late 1800's, but their immense weight, estimated to be 2.7 million pounds, converted them to splintered wood when they came crashing down. The wood of this species is coarse textured with a tendency for splintering. The redwood of commerce is the coastal species. Preservation of these trees was begun in 1864 when Abraham Lincoln transferred the land around the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Big Tree Grove to California. In 1890, it was deeded back to the federal government and became the nucleus of today’s Yosemite National Park.

The Giant Sequoia should grow in Arkansas, but I personally know of no trees in the state. A tree grows on the grounds of the nation’s capitol, surely no cooler or less humid than Little Rock. Numerous Giant Sequoias are reported up and down the East Coast. In cultivation, the evergreen tree tends to be short and squatty with a rounded head, but the oldest trees are only about 100 years old. Maybe when the tree reaches its mature age of 3500 years, it will be taller.

By: Gerald Klingaman, retired
Extension Horticulturist - Ornamentals
Extension News - September 3, 1999


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