The Giant Sequoia of the Sierra Nevada
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It is our intent to present as accurate and up-to-date an account as possible of Sequoiadendron giganteum (Lindl.) Buchh., known popularly as the giant sequoia, big tree, or Sierra redwood, and to correct much of the error, distortion, and inconsistency which has, unfortunately, pervaded the literature since the discovery of this species in 1852. What follows is a synthesis of the writings of others together with the results obtained from our field studies, begun in 1956.

The factual errors and distortions about the sequoia may have arisen from that curious mixture of man's attitudes and the romance attending the exploration and settlement of the American West. In that mixture, it seems, humility was too often subservient to curiosity: as though the tree's dimensions were less than admirable, the sequoia became taller, greater in diameter, and older than it actually was. Certainly, not all this was intentional. It must be realized that in those early days most visitors to sequoia groves were untrained in the natural sciences and that their instruments for measurement were crude at best. Even more frustrating is the realization that many scientists of the time accepted and passed on these errors, apparently with little challenge. Curiously, a few of the distortions have survived the test of time and appear in some contemporary writings, occasionally by authors of considerable note.

It must be acknowledged that, more recently, some of the early observations have been verified as indeed accurate by modern and more sophisticated instruments. But, in those early days, it was difficult to separate fact from fancy, and fanciful exaggerations, apparently having the greater appeal, were more often passed on as facts.

The contradictions of "fact," so prevalent in sequoia literature, eventually evoked challenge and led, finally, to objective investigations. As a result, much of the fancy and certainly some of the romantic appeal of the sequoia story disappeared as the sequoia became less ancient, shorter, and smaller in girth. We feel, however, that the story is no less fascinating for these later discoveries.

Frontispiece. The General Grant Tree, Grant Grove, Kings Canyon National Park. This tree, second only to the General Sherman in volume size, is regarded by many visitors as the more beautiful of the two. Its location is optimal for rapid growth; estimates based on increment borings suggest that this tree is less than 2000 years old. Photo by National Park Service.

Our account here is certainly incomplete. It brings together what we consider the best possible information on the giant sequoia to date. The case of the giant sequoia has confirmed the maxim that any research worth its salt poses more questions than it answers. In predicting, therefore, that the end to this story may never be told, we hope its pursuit may provide many others with such pleasures and gratifications as we have shared in a most pleasant research laboratory—the sequoia forest communities of the Sierra Nevada.

Our research program was both encouraged and supported1 by the U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, the chief custodian of these majestic trees. We are deeply indebted to the service, and especially acknowledge the personal interest and encouragement of park administrators, biologists, naturalists, rangers, and forestry personnel. Largely thanks to them, any of our early hypotheses and premonitions have borne fruit to become segments of the sequoia story. We are also indebted to the following persons for invaluable assistance in the production of this book: Glenn Harris for technical services, especially those relating to accuracy of reference citations and quotations; Bonnie Doran for secretarial services; Ivan Linderman and Loren Green for art and graphic work; Winthrop Stiles III for photographic services; Carl W. Sharsmith and James P. Heath for their meticulous review of the rough draft; and the many others whose suggestions have been incorporated in this text.

Richard J. Hartesveldt
H. Thomas Harvey
Howard S. Shellhammer
Ronald E. Stecker

June 1972

1Contract 14-10-9-900-254

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Last Updated: 06-Mar-2007