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The redwoods proudly take their place among nature's grandest living things. This family of massive evergreens includes the tallest trees in the world—a California redwood known as Tall Tree was measured at nearly 368 feet tall—as well as the most massive—the largest giant sequoia, the General Sherman Tree, weighs an estimated 12 million pounds, stands nearly 273 feet tall, and is almost 102 feet in circumference at its base. Redwoods also boast some of the world's oldest trees—California redwoods can live more than 2,000 years, while their close relatives, the giant sequoias, have been recorded at nearly 3,500 years of age.

Two distinct trees are commonly called redwoods, the California redwoods and the giant sequoias. And although they live several hundred miles apart, both share many traits and are native to the western United States, particularly in narrow strips in California. Both are known for their titanic proportions, their cinnamon-red trunks and bark, their pyramidal shape when young, and their thin, pyramidal crowns and lack of lower branches at maturity. They also share a thick bark—a foot thick or more, and tannin-rich—which helps them resist forest fires. They are distinguished in several ways as well, with the California redwoods standing taller, while the giant sequoias become more massive and heavy. In addition, giant sequoias have sharper, more pointed and scale-like needles than the California redwoods, and larger cones.

The Redwood’s Place in History

From their earliest discovery, America’s redwoods have fired the imagination and the human sense of wonder as few other living things have done. The first sighting of them by Western voyagers was recorded in 1769 by a clergyman named Father Crespi, a member of a Spanish expedition, who wondered at the sight of these awesome “trees of a red colour.” The name sequoia itself came from the Cherokee Chief Sequoyah, who was also famed for framing an alphabet of his Native American tongue. Not long after this discovery, redwoods were being harvested for their lumber, with the California redwood providing the most useful wood. Its resistance to decay made it an ideal choice for caskets, cigar boxes, boats, and pipes. The gold rush of the 1850s also took a toll on the redwoods, and protective measures were not put into place until the 1930s.

Some Common Species

The California redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) has the honor of being the world's tallest tree, as well as the source of most harvested redwood lumber. Often growing in height to 300 feet or more, this evergreen is an impressive sight with its lustrous, dark green or bluish-green leaves, its seemingly endless trunk, and its reddish bark. It grows naturally in the fog belt along the Pacific Ocean from southern Oregon to northern California, though it has been cultivated in other locations, including the East Coast, where it grows to a much smaller height. The California redwood is the only conifer that sends up vertical sprouts from roots growing near the surface of the soil, leading to the circular pattern of regeneration for which this noble tree is known. (Grows in hardiness zones 7 to 9.)

The giant sequoias (Sequoiadendron giganteum, synonym: Sequoia gigantea) are the largest trees on the planet, in both circumference and volume. Their natural range is in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, where some can grow to more than 250 feet in height and to a weight of several million pounds. Unlike the California redwoods, the wood of the giant sequoias is too brittle to make it desirable as lumber. Giant sequoias tolerate drier conditions than California redwoods and thrive better in the East, though their size there is much less than in their natural range. (Grows in hardiness zones 5 to 8.)