General Sherman


Though we’re big fans of history here at Mountains Headquarters, we do not ostensibly produce history-driven products. So, today’s headline topic is not the American Civil War General from Lancaster, Ohio, but she is named for the Union man.

If you’re a big tree person (or a “big tree” person!), our subject needs no introduction.

The world’s most-massive living organism is a giant sequoia called General Sherman.

General Sherman vertical panorama with a Deborah for pseudo-scale - photo by Kyle Stout

Located in Sequoia National Park in California, General Sherman is the queen of a majestic and noble stand of sequoias, known as the Giant Forest.

Sequoiadendron giganteum is the most massive species of tree on the planet. They are all-around competitors. They aren’t the tallest trees in the world; they aren’t the widest trees on the planet; they aren’t the oldest trees (i.e. they don’t become larger simply because they outlive everything else). But they do rank highly in each category, the result of which is the world’s biggest* single, non-clonal organism.

(Interesting aside: the asterisk and careful wording in the preceding paragraphs stems from some technicalities and ambiguities in how we measure size. A search for “world’s largest organism” will yield differing results. There is a species of aspen in Utah that forms colonies that are more massive than the giant sequoia individuals, but these trees are actually clones and not really an individual. Further, many sources cite a fungus in Oregon as the “largest” organism in the world, but this shroom’s status stems from the surface area. In terms of tonnage, no living, single organism approaches the size of General Sherman, not even the biggest blue whales. The Great Barrier Reef is obviously more massive, but it is a conglomeration of thousands of individuals, as well.)

Infographic from National Parks Service

The stats on General Sherman are preposterous.

She rises 275 feet above the forest floor. That’s nearly an entire American football field straight up. At the ground, the tree’s circumference is 102.6 feet, with a diameter of 36.5 feet. You could lie six six-feet-high humans head-to-toe and they would be as thick as General Sherman. 60 feet in the air, her girth is still 17.5 feet. Go up to 180 feet above the floor and the diameter remains 14 feet wide! That’s unreal.

General Sherman has a branch that is wider than most humans are tall: 6.8 feet! The first branch doesn’t sprout off the trunk until 130 feet above the ground. The tree’s estimated mass/weight is off the charts. In 1938, some guesses weighed in around 2,000 tons. Encyclopedia Brittanica puts the figure at 6,167 tons. Some proposed values are significantly lower. No matter what the actual tonnage is, General Sherman is enormous. For comparison’s sake, the largest blue whale is thought to tip the scales at about 190 tons.

Experts believe the sequoia is somewhere between 2,300 and 2,700 years old.

The base of General Sherman - photo by Kyle Stout

Visiting the giant sequoias is almost like arriving on an alien planet where everything is supersized. They are so large that the photos do not come close to accurately portraying them. The antiquity, the grandeur, the uniqueness, these qualities permeate the air itself. One feels tiny and insignificant among these colossi but also blessed and humbled.

When in doubt, we turn to John Muir for an apt description:

“When I entered this sublime wilderness the day was nearly done, the trees with rosy, glowing countenances seemed to be hushed and thoughtful, as if waiting in conscious religious dependence on the sun, and one naturally walked softly and awestricken among them. I wandered on, meeting nobler trees where all are noble, subdued in the general calm, as if in some vast hall pervaded by the deepest sanctities and solemnities that away human souls.”

The Giant Forest grove is an inundation of size. But, then, to encounter General Sherman, who dwarfs the others, a behemoth among behemoths, is breathtaking beyond cliche. Truly, nothing compares to the experience. I wish every human could visit at least once.

A branch that fell from General Sherman in 2006
Firefighters wrap General Sherman with aluminium foil in 2021 - NPS photo

Giant sequoias exist only in a small band at a specific elevation in California. They are naturally resistant to fires. Their thick bark and large stature allow them to survive blazes other species cannot. In many ways, they depend on fires. Their cones open with intense heat, allowing saplings to take root in open areas.

But the wildfires popping up in recent decades are a threat even these ancient beings have not faced in the past. In 2011, only 80,000 giant sequoias remained in the groves that can support them. Scientists estimate that 10-14% of that number was destroyed by one incident – the Castle Fire – in 2020. So, even species adapted for fire are under severe threat from the worsening climate.

Because of this vulnerability, officials decided to take the extreme precaution of wrapping the bottom portions of many of the largest trees in Sequoia National Park in aluminum, as a massive conflagration threatened the region. As of publication date, the KNP Complex Fire covers over 75,000 acres and is just 11% contained. Losing these trees would be a planetary tragedy.

Here’s to the success of these last-ditch measures. May General Sherman reign another millennium.

Further Reading and Exploration

The General Sherman Tree – National Parks Service

Giant Sequoia – Save the Redwoods League

KNP Complex Fire – Incident Information System

The Sequoia and General Grant National Parks – Chapter from Our National Parks by John Muir

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