Coast redwoods

Imagine a tree taller than the tallest building in Regina–by several stories; a tree as tall as a 30-story building. Imagine a tree trunk so massive you could easily live inside its hollowed trunk. Now imagine a whole stand of such trees, a valley filled with them. That’s the amazing reality of the Coast Redwoods.

Maybe it’s because I’ve lived almost my whole life on the prairies, but the giant redwoods of California have fascinated me since I was a small boy. In Regina, where every tree was planted by hand, the concept of a forest not filled with trees not only taller than our tallest building but 10 to 20 times older than the nation of Canada itself is, or should be, mind-boggling.

Last week, I had my mind most pleasantly boggled indeed as I continued my California sojourn with a visit to a redwood grove in Henry Cowell State Park, near Santa Cruz. This is neither the best-known nor the largest of the parks containing redwoods, but it has the advantage of having a grove of giant redwoods with a paved trail winding through it, suitable for pushing a stroller along–very important when your sightseeing is constrained by the presence of a 14-month-old baby!

The tallest tree in the park is about 285 feet tall, and about 16 feet wide. The oldest trees in the park are between 1400 and 1800 years old. The oldest confirmed redwood ever found, judged by counting rings, was 2,200 years old, but foresters believe some may be much older. Considering their great age, it’s not surprising that the Latin half of the redwoods’ scientific name, Sequoia sempervirens, can be translated as “ever-living.” (That’s not to suggest redwoods are the oldest living things; some of the bristlecone pines found in the western U.S. may be as old as 5,000 years!)

The tallest tree every measured was 367.8 feet high–that’s almost 50 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty. That tree’s crown fell off during the 1980s, but more than a dozen trees taller than 360 feet have been identified along the California coast. But even “average” mature redwoods are awe-inspiring, even though they’re “only” 200 to 240 feet tall and “only” 500 to 700 years old.

Surviving centuries of attack by insects, extreme weather and fire is an amazing achievement, but redwoods are amazing trees. Their very name is testament to one of the tricks up their very long sleeves: their red heartwood and reddish, thick, fibrous bark get their color from a very high tannin content, which gives the trees resistance to the attacks of fungus and insects. Their bark is also thick enough to help protect them from periodic fires. (The trees in Henry Cowell State Park still bear the signs of the last fire that swept through the area, more than a century ago, around their bases–some of them have been partially or completely hollowed out by fire–yet they’ve survived.)

Their reproduction is even more remarkable. Despite the immense size of the mature trees, redwood cones are only about an inch long. They contain 14 to 24 seeds, so tiny that it takes a hundred thousand of them to weigh a pound. A single tree may produce as many as six million seeds in a year, of which only 15 to 20 percent germinate and grow into seedlings. Very few of these seedlings survive for long, but those in ideal conditions can grow rapidly–as much as a foot a year on the shaded forest floor, as much as six feet a year in full sunlight with lots of moisture.

But redwoods also sprout from the roots of parent trees and from dormant buds in the burls–massive, bulbous growths pushing upward from the soil–at the base of the tree. Sometimes a whole family circle of trees may spring up around a single parent tree, forming a “fairy ring” of trees that share the same genetic blueprint and the same root system. Since this form of sapling grows even faster than the seedlings, this is probably the most common form of reproduction. What this means is that successive generations of trees are really clones of other trees, so that even a tree that’s only a few centuries old could easily be genetically identical to an original tree that sprouted thousands of years ago.

Another marvelous thing about redwoods is their ability to get water to the crown, which in some trees is the only part of the plant that still has needles–hundreds of feet of lower trunk may be bare–carrying out the photosynthesis that allows the tree to grow. Scientists think that the trees may get as much as thirty to forty percent of their water directly from the air, through their needles and through what are called “canopy roots,” which actually sprout directly from the branches into mats of trapped dust, needles, seeds and other materials. These “soil mats” act like sponges, trapping moisture from the air.

Of course, you can’t trap moisture from just any old air; most of the time it would be pretty hard in Regina, for instance. Coast redwoods grow only in a special kind of habitat: sheltered, well-watered places with rich soil close enough to the Pacific Ocean that fog drifts in on a regular basis. That means they seldom grow any further than 20 miles from the coast.

Despite their rather specialized habitat needs, coast redwoods once grew over a far greater range than they do now, when the climate they needed was more widespread. Their first restriction in range came during the last ice age; when the glaciers retreated, coast redwoods grew only in a narrow 450-mile strip along the Pacific Ocean from central California to southern Oregon.

But an even greater enemy of the redwoods than glaciers has been humans. It’s estimated that 95 percent of the virgin coastal redwood forests have been cut. The same characteristics that make redwoods live so long, such as imperviousness to insects, has also made it a favored building material–that, and the immense amount of wood to be gained by cutting down as singe tree. In San Francisco, we saw where some of that virgin redwood went: the city’s famous Victorian houses are made of redwood. In fact, pretty much the entire city was made of redwood until the 1906 earthquake. The subsequent fires destroyed most of San Francisco and burned up uncounted tons of redwood.

Today, although many redwood forests are protected, others continue to be under pressure, both from loggers and from developers. The whole Bay Area’s population has exploded in recent years, to the point where towns are running together into one huge megapolis. The redwoods we walked among in Henry Cowell State Park are within walking distance of a busy highway lined with homes and businesses.

There are many environmental groups dedicated to saving the redwoods, and have been now for decades. I hope they succeed. It would be a tragedy if future generations were not given the opportunity to marvel at these living giants.

And it’s a crying shame they won’t grow in Saskatchewan. I still think they’d look great in downtown Regina.

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