Giant sequoias: facts and stories
This species is named after a Cherokee chief ‘See-quayah’. Sequoias are the largest and tallest living things on the planet. Their name really suits them well: they are, quite simply, giants. These “mammoth trees”, as they were once called by European explorers, have a history of being worshipped by Native Americans of the Sierra Nevada (in California, USA).
Their bark has inspired all kinds of common names for the tree: The red-brown colouring led to the English name ‘Redwood’ in North America. The thickness of their spongy, fibrous trunk has also led to the nickname ‘boxer’s tree’ in French, but you’re more likely to want to stroke the velvety softness of the bark, rather than punch it. With it being almost as soft as a pillow, it’s tempting to take a break leaning against one of these trees. In line with this train of thought, the sequoia is also sometimes called ‘hiker’s backrest’ or variations thereof.
Did you know?
Sequoias are well-adapted to forest fires. Their bark shows an unusual level of fire resistance: containing lots of water and tannic acid, the bark acts like a fire blanket. With their branches hanging 10–30m in the air, they often escape any fires closer to the forest floor.
When it comes to reproduction, these coniferous trees from California are slightly unusual. Their cones only open up to release their seeds after a period of extreme heat. If there are no heat waves or forest fires to provide this extreme heat, the cones remain closed and can cling to the tree’s branches and twigs for up to 20 years.
Naturally occurring fires are actually good for sequoias, as they enrich the soil with ashes and clear space on the ground for their seeds to germinate.
This capability has its limits though, as we have seen in recent years. Instead of alternating periods of heat waves and rainfall, the changing climate is now dominated by longer periods of drought. Global warming is therefore leading to larger, more intense fires that threaten sequoia trees. Although this species has existed since before the dinosaurs, it could be wiped out if things continue in the direction that they are going.
The benefits of giant sequoias
Giant sequoias are forest trees that can grow to a huge size. They are not suitable for planting as street trees. They can be grown in parks or very large gardens. With their tall, elongated silhouettes, they can play a role in shaping the landscape and providing decoration for green spaces.
The size of the tree means that their foliage is also huge, producing a lot of oxygen as a result. Sequoias can absorb very large amounts of air pollution and CO2, which is stored sustainably in its wood.
They help with diversifying the classic range of trees in the city. Very little vegetation can grow around its base, and it is resistant to fungal infections. Higher up though, its crown serves as a welcoming home for birds and its bark provides shelter for many different spiders, insects, solitary bees, firebugs, etc.
to recognise a giant sequoia
brown-red, very thick, fibrous and soft
small, pointed scales along the branches arranged in spirals; small awl-like needles (around 1cm long) at the ends of the branches
same dark green colour all year (evergreen)
small cones at the ends of the twigs and branches; oval-shaped and hollow in the centre, covered with flattened diamond-shaped scales containing tiny seeds
Specifics about this tree
This trio of giant sequoias was planted surrounding this section of the path during the 1970s. Back then, their branches didn’t stretch out far enough to touch each other. Today though, they form a nicely shaped group in the middle of Cours Gorden Bennett, even if they do look a little dark. They look a little bit like three rockets rising up into the sky. One day though, they might surpass the height of the neighbouring buildings which are each 6–8 storeys high.
The giant sequoias growing in Belgium have yet to exceed 40m in height, as they were planted relatively recently. It is too soon to know if they will grow to the same colossal heights as their relatives in North America. The largest giant sequoia in California is called ‘General Sherman’, measures almost 84m tall, and is estimated to be around 2000 years old!
These Californian trees seem to have acclimatised well here, especially when planted on hillsides or at the bottom of valleys. They like humidity, for example in morning fog. They aren’t able to reproduce in this climate though, because the summers aren’t intense enough to reach the scorching temperatures they require. Well, not yet at least...
These sequoias are often put through various ordeals, including dogs scratching and clawing at their bark, and people knocking them as they pass by. If you pass by, don’t punch or kick these giants! Approach one of them slowly and be careful not to damage the roots. Get comfortable leaning your back against the trunk, tilt your head upwards and let your mind be carried up and away into the sky!
(Story and photos created by Priscille Cazin- Sylvolutions)
This portrait is:
- Enriched with an illustration from the Belgian Federal State Collection on permanent loan to the Meise Botanical Garden.
- An initiative of Christos Doulkeridis, Mayor of Ixelles , Audrey Lhoest, portfolio holder for Environment, Green Spaces and Planting, and Tourism and the Ixelles Communal executive