Top 10 cool facts we learned about redwoods

  • There are three kinds of redwoods - coast redwoods, which grow along California's northern shores, giant sequoias, which grow inland in California, and the Dawn redwood, which is native to Asia.

In the three months we volunteered at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, we were mesmerized by the beautiful trees from which it takes its name. Sadly, most of the old-growth redwood forest was mercilessly logged. Less than 5 percent remains, most of it in parks established after wealthy patrons purchased tracts in the 1920s, mostly from logging companies. Prairie Creek has one of the largest pieces of original old-growth left and several of the world’s top 10 tallest trees. Here are some of the interesting things we learned about these majestic trees. And, although pictures cannot capture their grandeur, I have included some photos.

1) Dramatic diversity: There are three different types of redwoods – Coast redwoods, tall and slim, that grow on the California coast and a few miles into Oregon; giant sequoias, not quite so tall, but bigger around, that grow inland in California; and the Dawn redwood, native to China, which loses it leaves in the winter. Even among the coast redwoods, there are differences, some being more frost tolerant, some more drought tolerant. Seeds taken from the different zones will retain the characteristics of the parent tree no matter where they’re planted.

2) Confounding conifers: The California legislature made redwoods the state tree before researchers realized the differences between coast redwoods and giant sequoias. Now Californians have two state trees.

3) Awesome ages: Coast redwoods grow more than 2,000 years, while giant sequoias can grow for 3,000 years.

4) Special seeds: The cones of the giant sequoias, about the size of an apricot, require fire to open and release their seeds, a fact discovered when no small trees were seen after decades of suppressing wildfires. The tiny cones of the coast redwoods, about the size of an olive, do not require fire. They have seeds the size of tomato seeds, and only one in a billion will grow into a tree.

5) Rare reiteration: Coast redwoods also reproduce by reiterating, or sort-of cloning themselves. They create large bumps, or burls, on their trunks that are bud tissue. When the tree is damaged or killed, it will release the burl to grow into a new tree. If the tree falls over, it produces a circle of trees, called a fairy ring, from the roots of the original tree. They are nearly identical genetically, but about 10 percent have a different genetic mix among their six sets of chromosomes. The trees also spit out new trunks from their sides, high in the air, often at more than a hundred feet. One tree that was mapped had 220 trunks.

6) Hella height: The coast redwoods are the tallest living things on the planet, growing more than 350 feet tall. They stop there, scientists believe, because that is the biological limit to the distance they can lift water. In fact, the tree can sometimes have a “stroke,” when an embolism, or air bubble, interrupts the water transport, and the top can die, losing its foliage above the injury, leaving a gray, craggy, brittle mini-snag or spike top in the canopy.

7) Remarkable roots: The roots of the trees are surprisingly shallow, only about a dozen or so feet, but they merge underground with the roots of nearby redwoods, wrapping and growing their toes together to provide mutual support. Still, they are vulnerable to wind, and several of the big trees fell this year at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. One, which we call the “earthquake” tree, fell about three months ago, woke everyone up in the employee housing area, and registered 2.1 on the Richter scale on a seismograph in one of the ranger’s garages. The tree fell across Cathedral Trees Trail, but park crews cut through it and moved a section so hikers can pass. The remains of the tree are still there, on its side, towering over Tom’s 6-foot-3 head.

8) Toxic tannins: The tree is full of tannins, which are toxic to most insects and other green, growing things, so while moss will cover the trunk and limbs of a spruce or fir, the bark of a redwood will remain fairly clean.

9) Craggy caves: The heartwood, or center of the trunk is the beautiful wood, impervious to weather, that made the trees so sought after. It is protected by thick, spongy bark, resistant to fire. However, you often see places where fire has breached the bark, creating “burn caves,” some so large that people lived in them, or penned their livestock inside at night to protect them from predators. As long as enough of the water and food conduction system remains, the tree will continue to grow, the same phenomena as the drive-through redwoods (none of which are in parks, only on private, commercial property).

10) Stupendous crowns: Up in the tops of the trees, the crowns, a whole other world exists. The trunks and limbs merge together, creating a lattice work where entire gardens exist. In some places, soil up to six feet deep has been found. Ferns, blackberries and lettuce lungwort are just a few of the plants populating this sky world. There are even salamanders that live their entire lives up there, never coming to the ground. Researchers say that anything growing on the forest floor also can be found growing in the crowns.

6 Comments

  1. Reply
    Meredith Stewart June 2, 2017

    Omg. How fascinating! Thank you for sharing this incredible knowledge. I bet you both were just THE BEST in the Visitor Center!

  2. Reply
    Keven June 2, 2017

    Wonderful essay, Judy. I love learning about all this. So where are you two off to next? Those of us who are living vicariously through your adventures need to know!

  3. Reply
    Peter Corbett June 2, 2017

    This is amazing stuff. I love the image of the roots snuggling together. And the fairy rings of new trees. What a joy to be immersed in that world.

  4. Reply
    dstabler June 3, 2017

    Love learning about these beauties and how they behave, and your photos are great. Thanks for giving us a glimpse into their world.

  5. Reply
    Jana G McBride June 4, 2017

    Thanks for sharing, fascinating.

    • Reply
      Judy Nichols June 8, 2017

      Thanks, Jana. We’re so glad you enjoyed it.

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