Tree Talk: There are giants among us

Residential Madison Park, with its lush gardens and groomed plantings amid clusters of houses seems an unlikely place for the world’s tallest trees, the fabled Coast Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens). But they’re here. Dotted about the neighborhood, you see them towering above all other trees on the horizon. At the five-point intersection at the South end of McGilvra Boulevard, if you turn uphill to the North, there is a mature tree in the forested section of Lake Washington Boulevard at the edge of the first curve. Other trees are scattered about on the periphery of large lots. Once you learn to recognize them, you’ll be surprised at how many you spot as you walk the neighborhood.

Native to northwestern California and southwestern Oregon, these venerable giants are perfectly at home in our climate. In fact, given a few centuries and the shift in global climate, we may see trees up here that outsize, out dazzle, the trees to the south.

Because of their value as lumber, 95 percent of the Redwoods were harvested starting in 1848 with the California population boom that followed the Gold Rush. Fortunately, preservation fever caught on in the 1960s and a few mighty stands were saved. Walking though a Redwood grove is, for almost anyone, particularly gardeners and nature lovers, an overwhelming experience. They have a stature and presence unrivaled on Earth. Two other trees are often called Redwood: The Giant Sequoia (Sequoia gigantea) and Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides). Both are spectacular plants but not the true Redwood.

Facts about Redwoods soar like the trees themselves. Known to live 500 to 1,000 years, there are trees in the Redwood Forests of California and Oregon that are estimated to be 2,200 years old. The species has been on Earth for about 240 million years. Redwoods grow to over 300 feet tall with a diameter of 8 to 20 feet. About 50 trees have been inventoried that exceed 360 feet in height. Redwoods commonly reach 100 feet in 50 years, growing 3 to 5 feet a year, occasionally even 10 feet per annum. Roots reach down 6 to 12 feet, the rootball stretches out 50 feet, and trees in groves intertwine their roots giving the plants the ability to withstand high winds. They are champions at surviving drought, since their fern-looking but stiff and sturdy branchlets of needles collect moisture from fog and mist. They’re known for being disease and pest free.

The bark of a mature Redwood is rich cinnamony-orange. Limbs shoot out from the trunk horizontally, then the fans of needled leaflets droop gracefully, usually medium green in color on the top, silvery gray underneath. Named varieties are available that  have blue-tinged leaves. The trees soars up in pyramidal form, with a width of 15 to 30 feet.

If you have space for a behemoth in your garden, they are considered good landscape plants. You might even establish a small grove, planting seedling trees as close as seven feet apart.  A while back I suggested that our community plant a Giant Sequoia (Sequoia gigantea), envisioning the children of McGilvra Elementary making an event of it and something that each child could show to their great grandchildren saying, “I was there when we planted this tree.” Now, I’ll seed the notion that the same be done with a Redwood (or Redwood grove). Such an undertaking has multiple benefits. Youngsters take pride of ownership in their neighborhood. It stimulates, by personal involvement, a sense of history and creates an interest in nature and arboriculture and introduces the notion that each of us has a role in the stewardship of the planet. Anyone out there want to start a committee?

Finally, for the New Agers and mystics: Once in California, I was researching an article on Redwoods, with an eye to their adaptability in the Pacific Northwest. The arborist (a Chinese-American) I was interviewing, said, “These trees have Chi.” Not knowing what that was, he explained that it was a Chinese medical / philosophical term for “life force,” then went on to tell me that it could be felt coming from the trunk of any tree, but most powerfully from Redwoods. He placed my hands about 3 feet apart and 8 inches from the bark on the trunk of a tree and said, “Stay still for a couple of minutes. You’ll feel something, something like a mild, continuous electrical current.” I did as instructed…. and I did! Make of that what you will, but Chi or no Chi, making friends with these gentle giants will  bring forth rewards that dwarf your expectations.