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Sequoia sempervirens

Related subjects: Plants

Background Information

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Sequoia sempervirens
Sequoia sempervirens in Redwood National and State Parks
Conservation status

Vulnerable ( IUCN 3.1)
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Plantae
Division: Pinophyta
Class: Pinopsida
Order: Pinales
Family: Cupressaceae
Genus: Sequoia
Species: S. sempervirens
Binomial name
Sequoia sempervirens
( D. Don) Endl.

Sequoia sempervirens is the sole living species of the genus Sequoia in the cypress family Cupressaceae (formerly treated in Taxodiaceae). Common names include Coast Redwood and California Redwood (it is one of three species of trees known as redwoods, but "redwood" per se normally refers to this species). It is an evergreen, long-lived, monoecious tree living for up to 2,200 years, and this species includes the tallest existing trees in the world, reaching up to 115.5 m (379.1 ft) in height and 8 m (26 ft) diameter at breast height.

The name "sequoia" is sometimes used as a general term for the subfamily Sequoioideae in which this genus is classified, together with Sequoiadendron (Giant Sequoia) and Metasequoia (Dawn Redwood); as a common name, it usually refers to Sequoiadendron.

Detail: bark

Coast redwoods have a conical crown, with horizontal to slightly drooping branches. The bark is very thick, up to 30 cm (12 in), and quite soft, fibrous with a bright red-brown when freshly exposed (hence the name 'redwood'), weathering darker. The root system is composed of shallow, wide-spreading lateral roots. The leaves are variable, being 15-25 mm long and flat on young trees and shaded shoots in the lower crown of old trees, and scale-like, 5-10 mm long on shoots in full sun in the upper crown of older trees; there is a full range of transition between the two extremes. They are dark green above, and with two blue-white stomatal bands below. Leaf arrangement is spiral, but the larger shade leaves are twisted at the base to lie in a flat plane for maximum light capture. The seed cones are ovoid, 15-32 mm long, with 15-25 spirally arranged scales; pollination is in late winter with maturation about 8-9 months after. Each cone scale bears 3-7 seeds, each seed 3-4 mm long and 0.5 mm broad, with two wings 1 mm wide. The seeds are released when the cone scales dry out and open at maturity. The pollen cones are oval, 4-6 mm long. The species is monoecious, with pollen and seed cones on the same plant. Its genetic makeup is unusual among conifers, being a hexaploid (6n) and likely autoallopolyploid (AAAABB). The mitochondrial genome is (unlike other conifers) paternally inherited (Neale et al. 1989).

Range and ecology

Sunlight shining through redwoods in Muir Woods

Coast Redwoods occupy a narrow strip of land approximately 750 km (470 miles) in length and 8-75 km (5-47 miles) in width along the Pacific coast; the elevation range is mostly from 30-750 m, occasionally down to sea level and up to 920 m (about 3,000 feet) (Farjon 2005). They usually grow in the mountains where there is more precipitation from the incoming moisture off the ocean. The tallest and oldest trees are found in deep valleys and gullies, where year-round streams can flow, and fog drip is regular. The trees above the fog layer, above about 700 m, are shorter and smaller due to the drier, windier, and colder conditions. In addition, tanoak, pine and Douglas-fir often crowd out redwoods at these elevations. Few redwoods grow close to the ocean, due to intense salt spray, sand and wind.

Fog is of major importance in Coast Redwood ecology. Redwood National Park.

The northern boundary of its range is marked by two groves on the Chetco River on the western fringe of the Klamath Mountains, 25 km (15 miles) north of the California-Oregon border. The largest (and tallest) populations are in Redwood National and State Parks ( Del Norte and Humboldt Counties) and Humboldt Redwoods State Park ( Humboldt County, California).

This native area provides a unique environment with heavy seasonal rains (of up to 2,500 mm or 100 inch annually). Cool coastal air and fog keep this forest consistently damp year round. Several factors, including the heavy rainfall, create a soil with less nutrients than are necessary, causing the trees to depend heavily on the entire biotic community of the forest, and complete recycling of the trees when dead. This forest community includes Douglas fir, Western Hemlock, Tanoak, Madrone, and other trees along with a wide variety of ferns, Redwood sorrel, mosses and mushrooms. Redwood forests provide habitat for a variety of mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians. Old growth redwood stands provide habitat for the federally threatened Spotted Owl and the California-endangered Marbled Murrelet.

The thick, tannin-rich bark, combined with foliage that starts high above the ground provides good protection from both fire and insect damage, contributing to the Coast Redwood's longevity. The oldest known Coast Redwood is about 2,200 years old (Gymnosperm Database); many others in the wild exceed 600 years. The numerous claims of older trees are incorrect (Gymnosperm Database).

The prehistoric fossil range of the genus is considerably greater, with a subcosmopolitan distribution including Europe and Asia until about 5 million years ago.


Dried sap of a redwood tree
An example of a bonsai redwood, from the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

Trees over 60 m (200 feet) are common, and many are over 90 m (300 feet).

  • The current tallest tree is Hyperion, measuring at 115.55 m (379.1 feet). The tree was discovered in Redwood National Park during Summer 2006 by Chris Atkins and Michael Taylor and has been measured as the world's tallest living thing. The previous record holder was the Stratosphere Giant in the Humboldt Redwoods State Park, at 112.83 m, last measured in 2004 (was 112.34 m in Aug 2000 and 112.56 m in 2002). Until it fell in March 1991, the "Dyerville Giant" was the record holder. It too stood in Humboldt Redwoods State Park; it was 113.4 metres high and estimated to be 1,600 years old.
  • There are 15 known living trees more than 110 m (361 feet) tall.
  • There are 47 trees that are more than 105 m (344.5 feet) tall.
  • A tree claimed to be 115.8 m (380 feet) was cut down in 1912.
  • The tallest non-redwood tree is a 100.3 m (329 foot) tall Douglas-fir.
An "albino" Sequoia sempervirens exhibiting lack of chlorophyll

In 2004, an article in Nature reported that the theoretical maximum potential height of Coast Redwoods (or any other tree) is limited to between 122 and 130 m (between 400 and 425 feet), due to gravity and the friction between water and the vessels through which it flows.

The largest Coast Redwood in volume is the " Lost Monarch", with an estimated volume of 42,500 cubic feet; it is 320 feet tall with a diameter of 26 feet at breast high (DBH). It is located in the Grove of Titans. Among current living trees there are only 7 known Giant Sequoias that are larger; these are shorter, but have thicker trunks overall, giving the largest Giant Sequoia, General Sherman, a volume of 1,487 cubic metres (52,510 cubic feet), making it the world's largest known tree. A redwood cut down in 1926 had a claimed volume of 1,794 m³ (63,350 cubic feet), but this is not verified.

About fifty 'albino' redwoods (mutant individuals that cannot manufacture chlorophyll) are known to exist, reaching heights of up to 20 m. These trees survive as parasites, obtaining food by grafting their root systems with those of normal trees. While similar mutations occur sporadically in other conifers, no cases are known of such individuals surviving to maturity in any other conifer species.


This is an example of a "fairy ring" sprouted from a stump. All the sprouts are identical clones with exactly the same genomic material.
An Arborist standing next to Del Norte Titan for size comparison. This is in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park during the winter of 2008.

Coast Redwood reproduces both sexually and asexually. Seed production begins at 10-15 years of age, and large seed crops occur frequently, but viability of the seed is low, typically well below 15%. The low viability may be an adaptation to discourage seed predators, which do not want to waste time sorting chaff (empty seeds) from edible seeds. The winged seeds are small and light, weighing 3.3-5 mg (200-300 seeds/g; 5,600-8,500/ounce). The wings are not effective for wide dispersal, and seeds are dispersed by wind an average of only 60-120 m (200-400 feet) from the parent tree.

Growth of seedlings is very fast, with young trees known to reach 20 m (65 feet) tall in 20 years. Coast Redwoods can also reproduce asexually by layering or sprouting from the root crown, stump, or even fallen branches; if a tree falls over, it will regenerate a row of new trees along the trunk. This is the reason for many trees naturally growing in a straight line. Sprouts originate from dormant or adventitious buds at or under the surface of the bark. The dormant sprouts are stimulated when the main adult stem gets damaged or starts to die. Many sprouts spontaneously erupt and develop around the circumference of the tree trunk. Within a short period after sprouting, each sprout will develop its own root system, with the dominant sprouts forming a ring of trees around the parent root crown or stump. This ring of trees is called a "fairy ring". Sprouts can achieve heights of 2.3 m (8 feet) in a single growing season.

Redwoods may also reproduce using burls. A burl is a woody lignotuber that commonly appears on a redwood tree below the soil line, though when above, usually within 3 m of the soil. Burls are capable of sprouting into new trees when detached from the parent tree, though exactly how this happens is yet to be studied. Shoot clones commonly sprout from burls and are often turned into decorative hedges when found in suburbia.

The species is very tolerant of flooding and flood deposits, the roots rapidly growing into thick silt deposits after floods.

Largest Trees

The five largest coast redwoods by volume. Four of them are among the Grove of Titans and Atlas grove

Tree Name Grove Height Diameter (b.h) Volume
    (m) (ft) (m) (ft) (m³) (ft³)
Lost Monarch JSRSP 97.5 320 7.9 26.0 1203.46 42,500
Iluvatar PCRSP 91.43 300 6.25 20.5 1061.88 37,500
Del Norte Titan JSRSP 93.6 307 7.3 23.7 1053.38 37,200
El Viejo Del Norte JSRSP 98.7 323.8 7.1 23.0 1002.41 35,400
Howland Hill Giant JSRSP 100.6 330 5.85 19.1 950.9 33,580

Tallest Trees

The 15 tallest trees in the world as of 2007.

Tree Name Height
  (m) (ft)
Hyperion 115.6 379.1
Helios 114.7 376.3
Icarus 113.14 371.2
Stratosphere Giant 112.87 370.3
National Geographic 112.74 369.4
Paradox 112.6 369.1
Federation 112.45 368.8
Mendocino 112.13 367.9
Harry Cole Tree 111.85 367.0
Swamp Tree 111.6 366.1
Pipe Dream Tree 110.64 363.1
Redwood Creek Giant 110.4 362.5
Lost Hope Tree 110.4 362.5
Rockefeller Tree 110.34 362.4
Daedalus 110.34 362.4

Cultivation and uses

Coast Redwood is one of the most valuable timber species in California, with 364,000 ha of redwood forest, all second growth, managed for timber production . Coast Redwood lumber is highly valued for its beauty, light weight, and resistance to decay. Its lack of resin makes it resistant to fire.

P. H. Shaughnessy, Chief Engineer of the San Francisco Fire Department wrote:

In the recent great fire of San Francisco, that began April 18th, 1906, we succeeded in finally stopping it in nearly all directions where the unburned buildings were almost entirely of frame construction and if the exterior finish of these buildings had not been of redwood lumber, I am satisfied that the area of the burned district would have been greatly extended.

Because of its impressive resistance to decay, redwood was extensively used for railroad ties and trestles throughout California. Many of the old ties have been recycled for use in gardens as borders, steps, etc. Redwood burls are used in the production of table tops, veneers, and turned goods.

The Coast Redwood is locally naturalized in New Zealand, notably at Rotorua. Other areas of successful cultivation outside of the native range include Great Britain, Italy, Portugal, the Queen Charlotte Islands, middle elevations of Hawaii, a small area in central Mexico ( Jilotepec) and the southeastern United States from eastern Texas to Maryland.

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