Big TreeThe Big Tree (Sequoia Wellingtonia, Seem.)-A pyramidal tree when young, becoming round-topped; 275 to 325 feet high; diameter 20 to 35 feet; fluted trunk. Bark reddish brown, fibrous, fluted; 1 to 2 feet thick. Wood red, soft, coarse, light, weak, durable. Buds naked. Leaves ovate, acuminate, spreading at tips, I inch long. Flowers: monoecious, terminal, conical, scaly, profuse in late winter; staminate with broad scales and abundant pollen; pistillate with 25 to 40 needle-tipped scales, with 3 to 7 ovules under each. Fruit dark red-brown woody cone, biennial, 2 to 3 1/2 inches long, with thickened tips; seeds 3 to 7 under each scale, each 2-winged, small, light, eaten by squirrels. Preferred habitat, rich woodlands. Distribution, narrow area on western slope of Sierras in California. Uses: Most majestic tree in the world. Rare and dwarfed in cultivation. Lumber used for shingles, fencing and in general construction.
Sir Joseph Hooker and Asa Gray sat with John Muir around a campfire on Mount Shasta, and talked about the great forests of the Sierras they had just visited. Comparing them with OldWorld forests, they agreed upon this statement: "In the beauty and grandeur of individual trees, and in number and variety of species, the Sierra forests surpass all others." Conifers are supreme in these forests and among conifers Sequoia is king. Of the two species, the Big Tree, S. Wellingtonia, stands first, and the redwood second.
The Old World has some trees of surprising girth and indefinite age-oaks, chestnuts, sycamores, and cedars of Lebanon-each with its history, the pride of the country it grows in. But these trees are derelicts-throwing out a wisp of foliage here and there, a truce to death, with each returning spring. The lime tree of Nurnberg and the chestnut at the foot of Mount /Etna are each famous; but these trees, with their tops dead and gone years before they were pronounced dead, their trunks honeycombed with decay, and leaning upon props and pillars, are scarcely to be compared with trees, hale, lusty-crowned, whose fluted trunks are a unit, and sound as a nut from the heart out. Granting a greater girth, if you please, to a few of these senile trees, and a greater height to one Eucalyptus that grows in Australia, we can truthfully declare that, excepting these, the Sequoias lead the world, past and present, in height and calibre. No other tree combines such massiveness of trunk with such height. And there is no doubt but that in age they can take rank with the oldest, for competent authorities estimate the age limit to be above 5,000 years. Muir thinks that some living trees have reached that age. Stumps now standing show 4,000 annual rings.
It would be great good fortune to visit one of the ten groves of Big Trees once a month and so get the story of the tree's life as the year rolls around. In the late winter the flowers appear, showering the whole region with their golden dust, and tipping the sprays with the pale green fertile flowers by thousands. The cones that follow are small for such a tree, and each scale bears from four to eight seeds at its base. Millions of them are scattered each year, thin, little winged discs, no larger than a baby's thumbnail, looking like half-grown elm seeds. It is incredible that such a tree should have come from such a seed. Not only have they vitality, but some store of nutriment, for the squirrels journey up the trees and cut off the cones in order to put away for winter the little seeds they contain. If fresh cones are falling, you may be sure the squirrels are at work, for the trees hold their empty cones for years.
It is strange that with such profuse seed production young trees are so scarce in the Big Tree groves. Only in the southern range of this species do seedling trees appear to reassure us that the race will preserve itself, if only the three agencies of destruction, the axe, the saw and the forest fire, can be curbed.
The tourist, hurrying through the Sequoia National Park, gets very little but an awed sense of the magnificence of these trees. It is worth while to have had the glimpse his limited ticket permits. Big stories told by friends who had been there before, actual dimensions of noted trees, and all the guide-book extravagance of description, have not prepared him for the things he sees. He is speechless with astonishment. He walks across an ample platform which is the flat top of a Sequoia stump. He sleeps, perchance, in a house which is a hollow log. He rides in a coach and four through a tunnel over which a standing trunk arches, like a mighty occidental Colossus of Rhodes. He lifts a fragment of bark, and it is 2 feet thick. It took three long weeks of steady labour for two men to cut down one tree!
The living trees are green topped, but bare of limbs for twothirds of their great fluted trunks. Our tallest Eastern oak, with the tallest sycamore or walnut atop of it, would not equal the height of one of these giants. Spruces and pines of majestic port standing around look like saplings. They are dwarfed by the company they keep. They look up, but the Sequoias look-not down but out, indifferent to all that is transpiring below them. They see only the limitless reaches of the eternal sky; their meat and drink, the sunshine and the leaf mould; their breath of life, the unwearying winds of heaven.
There were great forests of Sequoias once in central and northern Europe and in mid-continental North America. They stretched away, even to the Arctic circle. This was just before the great climatic Reconstruction Period, when magnolias flourished in Greenland and all the plants and animals of the temperate zone found congenial habitation in near proximity to the North Pole. Then came the Age of Ice, and only those species survived which were able to keep ahead of the glaciers, and establish themselves in regions not overwhelmed by the ice. The rocks of the Tertiary Period preserve the story of these times, and in the pages opened by the geologist's hammer, five distinct species of Sequoia are recorded. "Pressed specimens" indeed, these fossil trees are, two of which are identical with the California trees.
The other three species are extinct, and America has the only survivors of the noblest race of plants the world has ever produced. Trenches and ridges in the ground within the Sequoia belt contain the prostrate bodies of former generations of Big Trees. They are not found outside the range. This fact leads John Muir to believe that the area covered by these trees has not shrunken any since the Glacial Period-that Sequoia has held its own for 5,000 to 10,000 years.
The devastation of the Big 'Free groves by lumbermen is now checked in a few locations by Government purchase and reservation. The lumber is put to such base uses as shingles and clap, boards and fencing which lesser trees might better supply. It is the vast size and height of these trees, not the market value of the lumber per board foot, that make an acre yield such enormous profit.
Seedling Big Trees grow slowly, and do poorly in the Eastern States. In Europe they are more successful, and are popular everywhere. Weeping forms, which are much grown, originated in a French nursery.
The genus takes its name from Sequoiah, a wise Cherokee Indian, who made an alphabet of his tribal language by means of which the New Testament and a newspaper were published for his people.