The Migration of the Sequoia

When he returned to camp, and there related the wonders he had seen, his companions laughed at him and doubted his veracity, which previously they had considered to be very reliable. He affirmed his statement to be true, but they still thought it “too much of a story” to believe—thinking that he was trying to perpetrate upon them some first of April joke.

— James M. Hutchings

Question: Where do giant sequoias grow?

The world’s largest living non-clonal entities are marvels. They need to be seen to be comprehended; even then, comprehension is a stretch. They are the Grand Canyon of trees. Pictures hint at their mightiness, but true awareness lies only in three dimensions. Blue whales, the largest animals ever known to have existed on Earth, weigh upwards of 200 metric tons. That’s about 440,000 pounds. Scientists estimate General Sherman, the biggest sequoia, weighs 1,000 metric tons, or more than 2.2 million pounds.

When humans encounter these behemoths, they tend to be awed. Father of the National Parks and newsletter inspiration John Muir remarked, “The Big Tree is Nature’s forest masterpiece, and, so far as I know, the greatest of living things.” After visiting the region with Muir, Teddy Roosevelt quipped, “Lying out at night under those giant Sequoias was like lying in a temple built by no hand of man, a temple grander than any human architect could by any possibility build.”

If you answered “California” to today’s opening question, you are undoubtedly correct, though the trees are not found throughout the third-largest state. Just 81 groves dot the Golden State, with some of those copses containing a mere handful of individuals. Sequoias cover a scant 35,000 acres of land in California. To see them, one must travel to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park, Yosemite National Park, Giant Sequoia National Monument, and a few state parks.

General Sherman in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park - photo by Kyle Stout
The range of sequoias marked in pink (redwoods in green) - graphic by USDA Forest Service

Part of the reason for the limited range in California comes from the specific climatic needs of the trees (wet winters and dry summers), and part stems from the past logging of these massive wood producers. Researchers estimate only 80,000 sequoias remain extant in California, making them an endangered species.

As the climate changes, the concern for these trees only rises. They already exist at high altitudes, which means warming temperatures pose a real estate problem: they can’t keep moving up. Though sequoias thrive and require some wildfire to germinate, California’s conflagration rate has risen to an alarming level. 

In 2021, the National Parks Service took the unprecedented step of wrapping many of the giant sequoias at the eponymous park in foil as a wildfire raged through the region. Even with precautions, fires wiped out approximately 15% of the state’s trees that year. When these massive beings, evolved to deal with fire better than almost any living being, need protection, things are not going well. The future of sequoias in California is a serious problem.

Firefighters wrap General Sherman with aluminium foil in 2021 - NPS photo

And, of course, if the future of sequoias in California is a problem, traditionally that angst extends to the entire planet. The native range of Sequoiadendron giganteum is California.

But we might be able to notch our existential dread down a few pegs.

I was shocked to learn that our opening query has more than one answer. Let’s rephrase it:

Question: What nation possesses the highest number of giant sequoias?

The reply to this one is not California. To get to the surprising location, let’s rewind to 1852.

Engraving from Scenes of Wonder and Curiosity in California by James M. Hutchings

During the frontier era of California (the gold rush happened in 1849 and statehood transpired a year later), many corners of the rugged state remained unexplored by European settlers. In 1852, a hunter employed by the Union Water Company prowled Calaveras County, looking for provisions. As A. T. Dowd pursued bears, he stumbled upon the sight of his life: giant sequoias.

When he returned to camp and relayed his tale, his brethren refused to believe the literal tall tale. Undeterred, he crafted a ruse to bring them to the groves, figuring they needed to be seen to be comprehended. One human might keep oversized trees a secret but the group could not. Word of the largest trees anyone had ever seen started to spread.

One person the news reached was an Englishman named William Lobb. During the 19th century, a British company called Veitch Nurseries sent Lobb and his brother Thomas around the Americas in search of exotic and remarkable plants. Lobb happened to be in California in 1852 and 1853, gathering seeds to send home. He received an invitation to a meeting of the California Academy of Science, where he heard a report of Dowd’s “Big Tree.” If the story were true, this development would be a boon for Veitch Nurseries, especially if Lobb could beat anyone else from England with seeds from such a tree.

In Victorian England, plant collecting had boomed into something of a wealthy pastime, akin to art collecting. Alien flora could be quite the status symbol. What better emblem could exist than the world’s largest tree? Lobb visited the Calaveras Grove and prepared seedlings and shoots for a trip to England.

Giant sequoias at Calaveras Big Trees State Park - photo by MARELBU

As it turns out, Lobb was likely not the first to bring sequoia seeds to Britain, but he was the most influential.

Veitch began to sell sequoias for 2 guineas. Translated to modern prices, this figure comes out to be about $160. The English fell madly for the trees, planting them on estates and in broad avenues.

Sequoias are massive, but they also tend to live for thousands of years. Scientists believe General Sherman is between 2,300 and 2,700 years old. So, they might take some time to resemble California’s resident Gargantua. As the 19th century became the 20th and we moved into the current, sequoia fever ebbed in Britain and elsewhere (other countries, such as France, Italy, Australia, and New Zealand, received seedlings). In the minds of most of the public, sequoias remained the domain of California.

In 2024, however, that perception might begin to shift. The Royal Society published a study on the sequoias in Britain, and the situation was shocking.

The sequoia walk at Biddulph Grange in England - photo by Anthony Applegard

Researchers discovered that over the past two centuries, sequoias have not only survived in Britain but thrived. More than half a million individuals live there! More than six times as many as in California!

Some of the trees have grown rather quickly, as they do in California. The tallest individual resides in Scotland, where it has reached 185 feet in height by the age of 150. Many others across the island stand in the 165-175 foot range. Though these sequoias have made a dent in the Sherman figure – which stands at 265 feet high – they remain a staggering distance from the General’s girth. The world’s largest tree touts a volume of 52,000 cubic feet; the largest in Britain packs just 3,500 cubic feet.

Though we tend to view Britain as much wetter than California, the spots in which sequoias grow natively receive more rain than California’s sunny reputation would lead one to believe. Great Britain does not currently undergo the wildfires of the American West, but the trees seem to have taken to the wet side of the equation rather well. Professor Mat Disney told the BBC, “In terms of climate, it’s probably the case that they’re going to have a less pressured existence here than they do in California.”

A giant sequoia avenue planted in 1863 at Benmore Botanic Garden in Scotland - photo by Dougie Macdonald
A 173-foot sequoia in New Forest, England - photo by Bradluke22

How did so many of the world’s largest trees go virtually unnoticed in the arboreal community? Dr. Phil Wilkes of Kew’s botanic garden and a member of the new study relayed to the BBC, “Half a million trees is quite a lot to go under the radar until now, but it’s when you start looking for them in the landscape, and compiling these datasets, that you realise how many there are.” Earlier, we had a literal tall tale in this story and, as it shakes out, we also couldn’t see the forest for the trees in Britain.

To see the planet’s biggest entities, one must still travel to California. Will that always be the case? Will the sequoias survive the rapidly changing environment in the United States? Even if they do, in a few centuries, the trees transported to England in the middle of the 19th century might one day rival the size of General Sherman, at least in height. Right or wrong, certain species tug at our hearts more vigorously than others. The giant sequoia seems to have a grip on the psyche of the tree lover, so its continued existence is something that produces consternation as its native habitat begins to alter. The notion that the Big Tree might continue to persist, not to extirpate, might be a boon of comfort, even if it doesn’t happen in California.

In terms of numbers, Great Britain might just be Sequoia King.

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