The Giant Sequoias of California
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THE FIRST of the two species of Sequoia to be seen by the white man was the redwood. The Spanish padres of Portola's Expedition probably first saw the redwoods in 1769 during their travels of exploration and colonization along the coast of what is now California. They called the trees "Palo Colorado," meaning red trees or redwood because of the bright red color of the heartwood.

The discovery that the redwood was a new botanical species was made by Archibald Menzies, botanist with the Vancouver Expedition in 1794. It was not until 1823, however, that A. B. Lambert, an English botanist, first gave it a scientific name by publishing a description that placed the tree in the same genus as bald cypress, Taxodium. Since he thought that it closely resembled that species, he called the new tree Taxodium sempervirens.

Steven Endlicher, a German botanist, decided that specimens he had studied represented an entirely new genus and in 1847 renamed it Sequoia but retained the species name of sempervirens.

The giant sequoia was not discovered until at least 64 years after the redwood. There is some disagreement among historians as to who should receive credit for the discovery, but the most authentic evidence indicates that the Joseph R. Walker exploration party saw the giant sequoias in 1833 in either the Merced or the Tuolumne Grove of Yosemite National Park. The discovery was not publicized at first except in the journal of the expedition, which was printed in 1839 at Clearfield, Pa. In 1852, when A. T. Dowd reported on his observations of the trees in what is now the Calaveras Grove, many fantastic stories quickly spread of the apparently impossible bulk of the trees. They were immediately called "Mammoth Trees" or "Big Trees" because of their immense size. All early tales of the great size of the trees were considered as exaggerations, and whenever scores of feet were discussed the listener thought that inches were meant.

FIGURE 4.—Foliage and cones of the redwood, Sequoia sempervirens. (Approximately two-thirds of natural size.)

FIGURE 5.—Foliage and cone of the giant sequoia, Sequoia gigantea. (Approximately two-thirds of natural size.)

By 1870 most of the larger giant sequoia groves were known, but as late as 1900 an official Government report2 listed only 11 groves: North, Calaveras, Stanislaus, Tuolumne, Merced, Mariposa, Fresno, Dinkey, Kings-Kaweah (grouped because of lack of information), North Fork of the Tule River (also grouped for lack of information), and South Fork of the Tule River. As late as 1933 a small grove was discovered, or at least first reported.

2United States Department of Agriculture. Division of Forestry. A short account of the big trees of California. 1900. (Bulletin No. 28.)

Specimens of the Sierra Nevada species of sequoia reached England in 1853. John Lindley, a botanist, created a new genus and called it Wellingtonia, in honor of the Duke of Wellington who had died the previous year, and gave the species the name of gigantea because of the tree's size. In 1854, J. Decaisne, the French botanist, recognized that the new species belonged to the same genus as the redwood and renamed the tree Sequoia gigantea.

The tree has been popularly known as Big Tree, sequoia, Sierra redwood, and giant sequoia. The last name is considered most descriptive and has recently been accepted by the Federal Government for official use.

There is some question regarding the origin of Endlicher's name "Sequoia." The generally accepted belief is that he named the tree in honor of the Cherokee Indian Sequoyah (using the Latinized spelling of the name). Endlicher was a linguistic student as well as a botanist and probably was aware that this uneducated, non-English-speaking Indian had developed, in 1821, an alphabet of 86 symbols representing each sound in the language of his tribe. This alphabet was so simple that anyone in the tribe could quickly learn to read and write, and it is considered one of the cultural masterpieces of modern times. Sequoyah was elected by the Cherokee Council in 1828 as their representative in Washington, where he became a highly respected citizen. The State of Oklahoma has recognized him as one of its leading citizens by placing his statue in Statuary Hall in the National Capitol. It is indeed fitting that this noblest of trees, with its massive red trunk, should honor one of our original Americans.

FIGURE 6.—The famous Wawona Tree, Mariposa Grove, Yosemite National Park. Pictured in schoolbooks for three generations, this tree was cut through in 1881 for the passage of horse-drawn stagecoaches. Anderson Photo.

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Last Updated: 02-Feb-2007