Tall Trees

California’s Redwoods

by Virginia Hayes

California has two official state trees, the coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) and the giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum). Each is the only species in its respective genera, but both belong to the same family, the taxodiaceae. Both are evergreen conifers and bear small, rounded, woody seed cones typical of their family. There the resemblance ends.

Coast redwoods live, as their name implies, along the coast. Their range extends from central California north to southern Oregon. They are restricted, however, to the zones of the coastal mountains where fog prevails much of the year. Studies of their biology have shown that the arrangement of their leaves in two ranks to form flattened fronds actually serves to condense moisture out of the fog and allow it to drip to the forest floor below, providing “irrigation” where none exists. This fact makes them harder to grow as a garden specimen in dry interior valleys. Along the South Coast, they fare a little better, but probably never attain the same stature or age that they might in their native range. There, they can live to be more than 2,000 years of age and top out at more than 350 feet in height.

Across the big central valley, on the lower slopes (below 8,000 feet) of the Sierra Nevada, lives the giant sequoia. These “big trees” are truly stupendous. Though they may not quite reach the same stature as their coastal cousins, reaching just above 300 feet, they quite often have diameters in excess of 23 feet. The giant sequoia boasts another claim to fame in that it can live to an even greater age than the coast redwood. Specimens have been estimated to be 3,000, even 3,500, years of age, although most are in the age range of 400 to 1,500 years. Unlike the fogbound coast redwood, giant sequoias thrive in winter snows and the sweltering heat of central California summers. Rarely planted in Southern California, they nevertheless will grow with some success in the Santa Barbara region.

Coast redwoods are common in our landscapes, but as with many trees, sometimes you need to go to the forest to really experience their grandeur. Take a trip to see one or both of our state trees for an encounter that can’t be duplicated anywhere else on earth.

Virginia Hayes, curator of Ganna Walska Lotusland, will answer your gardening questions. Address them to Gardens, The Independent, 122 W. Figueroa St., S.B., CA 93101. Send email to

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