Majestic Cathedrals of Beauty and Grace
They’re rare and they’re beautiful.
Coast redwoods grow only one place on Earth—right here on the Pacific Coast, from Big Sur to southern Oregon. Earlier in the Earth’s history, redwoods had a much wider habitat, including western North America and along the coasts of Europe and Asia.
The earliest redwoods showed up on Earth shortly after the dinosaurs– and before flowers, birds, spiders, and, of course, humans. Redwoods have been around for about 240 million years, compared to about 200,000 years for “modern” humans.
Officially, the oldest living coast redwood is at least 2,200 years old but foresters believe some of our coast redwoods may be much older. It can grow to 300 feet or more—making it the tallest tree on Earth.
Right now, there are about 50 redwood trees taller than 360 feet living along the Pacific Coast. Yet their root system is only 6 to 12 feet deep: redwoods create the strength to withstand powerful winds and floods by extending their roots more than 50 feet from the trunk and living in groves where their roots can
While we have 2,000-year-old redwoods in our neighborhood, most of the redwoods we see are much, much younger– about 50-150 years old. Since California’s Gold Rush in 1848, about 95% of the redwood forest– which once stretched across northern California– was logged.
The trees are crucial to maintaining a stable, human-friendly climate. Studies show coast redwoods capture more carbon dioxide (CO2) from our cars, trucks and power plants than any other tree on Earth. Keep in mind that as the climate changes, the redwood forests are one of the very few areas that can provide a refuge for plants and animals to survive, because the area has many microclimates, is cooled by coastal summertime fog, and is still largely unpaved.
Wild, endangered creatures like mountain lions, coho salmon and marbled murrelet rely on the local redwood forests. They need large, contiguous areas of diverse habitat to survive, especially as the climate changes and needing to adapt quickly if necessary. Mountain lions often travel hundreds of miles in a week; Coho salmon depend on unblocked, free-flowing streams to spawn; and the endangered marble murrelet, a sea bird, only nests in the tallest old-growth redwoods and old-growth Douglas fir trees.
Redwoods live so long and are treasured by humans for building because they are extremely resistant to insects, fire and rot. At one time, San Francisco’s building codes required redwood lumber to be used in the foundations of new structures. A redwood tree’s bark can be 1 foot thick, and containing tannin, protects the tree from fire, insects, fungus and diseases.
There is no known insect that can destroy a redwood tree. Fire isn’t a big threat because the trunk is thick, there’s lots of water inside the tree, and the bark doesn’t have flammable resin like a pine tree does.
The familiar local redwood trees we see are officially called sequoia sempervirens, meaning “always green.” There are two other types of sequoia trees still living and both are close relatives of our local coast redwood.
The “Giant Sequoia” (officially sequoiadendron giganteum) grows only in California’s Sierra Nevada range and is actually shorter but heftier than our coast redwood. You can see them in places like Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon National Park. The “Dawn Redwood” (officially metasequoia glyptostroboides) grows only in a remote area of central China and is about one-third the height of our coast redwood.
So, when you take a stroll through the redwoods of Humboldt, remember these majestic cathedrals of nature.
You are in a nursery of relatively young redwoods that will grow for 2,000 years, outliving you and your children, and hopefully seen by the generations of grandchildren to come.
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Film credit: ’National Ranger Talk’ by Finley-Holiday Films,
William Helmuth, and Susanna Ausema