Plant of the day: coast redwood


The bonfire spits and crackles, sending glowing sparks drifting upward. Above and behind these rising embers towers a cluster of dark silhouettes. We are in the middle of a grove of redwoods, ushering the new year in among their timeless company, along with friends and family.

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This isn’t just a beautiful place–it’s a great spot for the reflections on time that the new year so often leads to. Redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) are some of the most impressive of all the terrific trees in California, with their tall straight trunks and thickly shaggy red bark. Each tree can live to more than 2000 years old. And they are big; often well over 300 feet tall, and as much as 30 feet in diameter. Redwoods are versatile, surviving even after being burned partially through by fire. When cut down or killed, the stump will still have enough energy to send up sprouts that grow into mature trees of their own. This adaptability lends itself to exploration–you can find trees you can walk through because fire burned through them, or groves tens of feet across that will be genetically the same as the long-vanished parent tree.

These trees are home to abundant wildlife, including pileated woodpeckers, marbled murrelets, and spotted owls–as well as other birds, deer, rodents, salamanders, foxes, and more.  Humans have used redwoods for shelter from tribal times until the modern day. Many of the old houses in San Francisco and throughout California were built with old growth redwood logged in 1800s and into the twentieth century; high-quality redwood is now a pricey and scarce commodity. Settlers would use the cavities created in the trunk by wildfires as livestock pens, particularly for geese–giving these fire scars name “goosepens“.

Redwood leaves are of two dramatically different types–they appear to be from totally different types of tree. The “shade leaves” are flat needles about a half an inch long, that stick straight out from either side of the branchlet. They are often the lowest growing, and are semi-deciduous–the tree sheds them regularly, every few years. The “sun leaves” are small and scaly, pressing closely to the branch. These tend to grow higher on the tree and are shed much less often.

These trees are dependent on the fog and rain coming in from the sea–they only grow in a comparatively narrow band along the coast, growing up to 450 miles inland (but no more) from southern Oregon to Monterey. A lot of their water comes from fog drip, and they prefer moister areas–canyons and rain pockets. All of which begs the question–what will become of these majestic survivors as the climate changes?


Filed under Plant of the day

2 responses to “Plant of the day: coast redwood

  1. tom wilkie

    The coastal redwoods are thick along Skyline Blvd on the SF peninsula. Two friends and I road our bikes as far south as we could before the sun vanished behind a wall of fog on a chill wind. We bedded down for the night within a blanket of low branches on a mattress of spongy brown leaf litter. The first fat drops of fog drip hit my face as I was relaxing in my cozy sleeping bag. I didn’t want to move. But the drip became a steady pelting. I hopped up, parted the curtain of low branches, and marched well out into the field, far enough to move beyond the down wind rainstorm. I jumped into my bag, and waited. My friends complained about the rain beneath the redwoods. I assured them I was dry, though less cozy. The frenchman was the first to join me but my longtime Berkeley friend wasn’t about to be fooled. He would not budge until Frenchy’s earnest assurance that this paradox of nature brought rain within the canopy but only tolerable humidity skimming the field.

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