The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Sequoia Gigantea

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SEQUOIA GIGANTEA, the “big-tree of California,” is more rare. It is found in 10 small groves, forming an uninterrupted “belt” extending for 200 miles on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and nowhere else in the world. It grows at elevations of 4,000 to 7,000 feet. This has suggested that possible lower growths were destroyed by glacial action. The Calaveras grove near the northern extremity of this series is the most picturesque and important group of big trees, and was first discovered by J. Bidwell in 1841. These famous trees are the most massive of any in the world, but are not the tallest, being surpassed by the Eucalyptus trees of Australia. They are practically exempt from disease, and, if they were not injured by fire and by man, would have apparently an almost endless life. Some of them are judged, by the number of annual rings, to have been thousands of years old. Fully grown trees average a height of 275 feet, and a diameter of 25 feet. One of the most gigantic, cut down, with great difficulty, in 1853, was 302 feet in height, 96 feet in circumference, and after the bark was removed (which was itself nearly 18 inches thick, the diameter of the solid wood in the stump was 25 feet, 6 feet from the ground. This stump was used as a dancing floor, holding 40 or more persons. Others have been estimated as between 350 and 400 feet high. A section of one of these great trees has been placed in the Museum of Natural History in New York, and another in South Kensington, England.

The younger sequoias are very graceful, and charming in their dark blue-green foliage, being often grown in English and European parks. They have a straight, tapering stem from which the branches spring to form a narrow spire-like pyramid. After a few hundred years they begin to lose their branches, and become dome-like. Ultimately they become our picturesque trees, with a great trunk enlarged at the base, and strongly buttressed, fluted with low broad ridges, and covered with cinnamon brown bark (purple-tinted in the shadow) which follows the contour of the lobed trunk, and is deeply, longitudinally furrowed, and separated into fibrous scales on the ridges. This tapering shaft is naked for 100 or more feet, when great branches, eccentric in development, join in constructing the narrow, but massive domes which stand out above the other tall trees of the Sierras, and break into delicate but dense spray of much divided pendulous branchlets, blue-green when young but developing a bronzy tint when mature.

The big trees, while standing, have served as shelter for men and cattle, and are a constant attraction for tourists, the largest being known by name. One, the Wawona, in the Mariposa grove, has a portal cut through its base, which allows the passage of vehicles. But there is constant danger of their extinction. Only one comparatively unimportant and uninteresting group, the Mariposa grove, is efficiently protected. The others are owned by private interests and often by lumbermen, who cut down the magnificent trees for the sake of their light soft wood, bright red in the heart, and durable when in contact with soil, and which is dynamited apart, with enormous waste, and made principally into fencing and shingling. The big-tree has not the tremendous reproductive powers of the redwoods, the seeds have very low vitality, and in some groves almost no seedlings are found; moreover, the flocks of sheep pastured on the mountains destroy the saplings, and the dreaded forest fires not only decimate the patriarchs but devour the young growth. Consult Jeffrey, ‘Comparative Anatomy . . . of the Coniferales,’ pt. 1, Vol. V, Memoir Boston Society of Natural History (1903). See Redwood.