Cone Bearing Evergreens - Sequoias
( Originally Published 1927 )
Nowhere else in the world are conifers found in such extensive forests and in such superlative vigor and stupendous size as in the states that border the Pacific Ocean. California is particularly the paradise of the conifers. All of the species that make the forests of the Northwest the wonder of travelers and the pride of the states are found in equally prodigal size and extent in California. To these forests are added groves of sequoias—the Big Tree and the redwood, the former found nowhere outside of California, the latter reaching into Oregon.
Once the sequoias had a wide distribution in the Old and the New World. With magnolias and many other luxuriant trees found in warm climates, five species of sequoia extended over the North Temperate zone in both hemispheres, reaching even to the Arctic Circle. The glacial period transformed the climate of the world and destroyed these luxuriant northern forests under a grinding continuous glacier. The rocks of the tertiary and cretaceous periods preserved in fossils the story of these pre-glacial forests. Two of the species of sequoia escaped destruction in tracts the ice sheet did not overwhelm. For ten thousand years, perhaps, the sequoia has held its own in the California groves. Indeed, both species are able to extend their present range if nature is unhindered. The three enemies that threaten sequoia groves are the axe of the lumberman, the forest fire kindled by the waste about sawmills, and the grazing flocks that destroy seedling trees.
The Big Tree
Sequoia Wellingtonia, Seem.
The Big Tree is the most gigantic tree on the face of the earth, the mightiest living creature in existence. Among the giant sugar pines and red firs it lifts a wonderfully regular, rounded dome so far above the aspiring arrow-tips of its neighbors as to make the best of them look like mere saplings. The massive trunk, clothed with red-brown or purplish bark, is fluted by furrows often more than a foot in depth. The trunk is usually bare of limbs for a hundred or two hundred feet, clearing the forest cover completely before throwing out its angular stout arms. These branch at last into rounded masses of leafy twigs, whose density and brilliant color express the beauty and vigor of eternal youth in a tree which counts its age by thousands of years already.
To see this Big Tree in blossom one must visit the high Sierras while the snow is eight to ten feet deep upon the buttressed base of the huge trunk. It is worth a journey, and that with some hardship in it, to see these trees with all their leafy spray, gold-lined with the multitude of little staminate flowers that sift pollen gold-dust over every-thing, and fill the air with it. The pistillate flowers, minute, pale green, crowd along the ends of the leafy sprays, their cone scales spread to receive the vitalizing dust brought by the wind.
When spring arrives and starts the flower procession among the lower tree-tops, the spray of the Big Tree is covered with green cones that mature at the end of the second season. They are woody, two to three inches long, and spread their scales wide at a given signal, showering the surrounding woods with the abundant harvest of their minute winged seeds. Each scale bears six to eight of them, each with a circular wing that fits it for a long journey. The cones hang empty on the trees for years.
The leaves of the Big Tree are of the close, twig-hugging, scaly type, never exceeding a half inch in length on the most exuberant-growing shoots. For the most part they are from one fourth to one eighth of an inch in length, sharp pointed, ridged, curved to clasp the stem, and shingled over the leaves above.
John Muir believes there is no absolute limit to the existence of any tree. Accident alone, he thinks, not the wearing out of vital organs, accounts for their death. The fungi that kill the silver fir inevitably before it is three hundred years old touch no limb of the Big Tree with decay. A sequoia must be blown down, undermined, burned down, or shattered by lightning. Old age and disease pass these trees by. Their heads, rising far above the spires of fir and spruce, seem not to court the lightning flash as the lower, pointed trunks do; and yet no aged sequoia can be found whose head has not suffered losses by Jove's thunder-bolts. Cheerfully the tree lets go a fraction of its mighty top, and sets about the repair of the damage, with greatly accelerated energy, as if here was an opportunity to expend the tree's pent-up vitality. It is strange to see horizontal branches of great age and size strike upward to form a part of a new, symmetrical dome to replace the head struck off' or mangled by lightning. With all the signs of damage lightning has done to these tree giants of the Sierras, but one instance of outright killing of a tree is on record.
The wood of the Big Tree is red and soft, coarse, light, and weak—unfit for must lumber uses. It ought, by all ordinary standards, to be counted scarcely worth the cutting; but the vast quantity yielded by a single tree pays the lumberman huge profits, though he wastes thousands of feet by blasting the mighty shaft into chunks manageable in the sawmill. Shingles, shakes, and fencing consume more of the lumber than general construction—ignoble uses for this noblest of all trees.
The best groves of Big Trees now under government protection are in the grand Sequoia National Park. Near the Yosemite is the famous Mariposa Grove that contains the "grizzly giant" and other specimen trees of great age and size. More than half of the Big Trees are in the hands of speculators and lumber companies. Exploitation of nature's best treasure is as old as the human race. The idea of conservation is still in its infancy.
The ruin by the lumbering interests of a sequoia grove means the drying up of streams and the defeat of irrigation projects in the valleys below. Big Trees inhabit only areas on the western slopes of the Sierras. Wherever they grow their roots have made of the deep soil a sponge that holds the drainage of melting snowbanks and doles it out through streams that flow thence to famishing, hot, wind-swept plains and valleys. When the trees are gone, turbulent, short-lived spring floods exhaust the water supply and do untold damage in the lowlands.
Big Trees have not succeeded in cultivation in our Eastern states, but for many years have been favorites in European gardens and parks. In the native groves the seedlings do not show the virility of the redwoods, though to the south the range of the species is being gradually extended. No tree is more prodigal in seed production and more indifferent, when mature, to the ills that beset ordinary forest trees; yet government protection must be strengthened, private claims must be bought, and scientific forestry maintained in order to prevent the extinction of the species, with the destruction of trees that are, as they stand to-day, the greatest living monuments in the world of plants.
S. sempervirens, Endl.
The redwood comes down to the sea on the western slopes of the Coast Range, from southern Oregon to Monterey County in California, tempting the lumberman by the wonderful wealth and accessibility of these groves of giant trees. The wood is soft, satiny, red, like the thick, fibrous, furrowed bark that clothes the tall, fluted trunks.
Redwoods are taller than Big Trees, have slenderer -trunks and branches and a more light and graceful leafspray. The head is pyramidal in young trees, later be-coming irregular and narrow, and exceedingly small in forests by the crowding of the trees and the death of lower branches. The leaves on the terminal shoots spread into a flat spray, two-ranked, like those of a balsam fir. Each blade is flat, tapering to both ends, and from one fourth to one half an inch in length. Awl-shaped and much shorter leaves are scattered on year-old twigs, back of the new shoots, resembling the foliage of the Big Tree.
The cones are small and almost globular, maturing in a single season, scarcely an inch long, with three to five winged seeds under each scale. Seedling redwoods come quickly from this yearly sowing, and thrive under the forest cover, unless fire or the trampling feet of grazing flocks destroy them. After the lumberman, the virile redwood sends up shoots around the bleeding stumps, thus reinforcing the seedling tree and promising the renewal of the forest groves in the centuries to come.
Redwood lumber is the most important building material on the Pacific Coast. The hardest and choicest wood comes in limited quantities from the stumps which furnish curly and birdseye wood, used by the makers of bric-à-brac and high-priced cabinet work. Shingles, siding, and interior finish of houses consume quantities of the yearly output of the mills. Demand for fence posts, railway ties and cooperage increases. Quantities of lumber are shipped east to take the place of white pine no longer obtainable.
In cultivation the redwood is a graceful, quick-growing, beautiful evergreen, successful in the Southeastern states, and often met in European parks and gardens. Weeping forms are very popular abroad.
Government and state protection has made sure the safeguarding for coming generations of some groves of redwoods, containing trees whose size and age rival those of the most ancient Big Trees. But the fact that the redwood, restricted on the map to such a limited territory, is the most important timber tree on the Coast, is a blot upon our vaunted Democracy, which has allowed the cunning of a few small minds to defeat the best interests of the whole people and rob them of forest treasure which might yield its benefits continuously, if properly managed. Government purchase of all sequoia-bearing land, followed by rational methods of harvesting the mature lumber and conserving the young growth, is the ideal solution of the problem. Such a plan would assure the saving of the monumental giants.