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Big, tall and old: California’s rich with landmark trees

  • Anne-Marie Walker
  • In your summer travels about California, why not look for landmark trees, those whose majestic beauty, ecological interest or historical significance convey landmark status?

    California has more than 200 native trees, some of which range widely while others are limited to geographic regions. Majestic beauties include redwoods as well as other trees, including California buckeye, California sycamore, California bay and California fan palm and certain species of pine and oak occurring only in California. Because of its rich biodiversity, scientists designate our state the “California Floristic Province.” This biodiversity is partly due to the state’s large territory spanning 13 degrees of latitude and its Mediterranean climate. When glaciers carved out areas of North America, species of trees once more widely distributed throughout the Northern Hemisphere became isolated in California and our arboreal treasures awaited discovery.


    Travelers come to California from all over the world to see our majestic trees: the world’s biggest, tallest and oldest trees. The rush to find gold in 1849 accelerated the discovery of landmark trees and suddenly headlines proclaimed California “The Home of Big Trees.” Fortunately, when commercialism threatened destruction, John Muir and others stepped forward to encourage preservation. California’s biggest landmark tree is Sequoiadendron giganteum or giant sequoia, which now exist only in 75 isolated groves on the western side of the Sierra. The biggest is General Sherman in Sequoia National Park. Listed in America’s National Register of Big Trees, this is most likely the largest tree on Earth. Research is being conducted on how these long-lived giants, sometimes 2,500 years old, are faring in the midst of California’s drought. Concern has deepened since scientists observed browning tops on giant sequoias.

    The tallest tree on Earth is Sequoia sempervirens, California’s coast redwood. Often living 2000 years, you can find the tallest in Redwood National Park along California’s north coast. Hyperion, named after the Greek God of Light, measured 379.7 feet tall in 2007. The longest-lived tree on earth is the bristlecone pine found in Inyo National Forest in eastern California’s White Mountains. Living sometimes more than 4,000 years, bristlecone are only 30 feet tall.


    While not as massive, tall or long-lived as the aforementioned trees, many of California’s native trees are significant ecologically and historically. California buckeyes grow in drifts on dry hillsides, canyons and along streams. In spring, buckeye present a mass of floral fireworks that attract pollinators. Native Americans valued buckeye for bark and seeds eaten after soaking to remove toxins. California sycamore groves were deemed sacred places by Native Americans. Growing the largest leaf of any native tree in North America, sycamores provide nutrients and shade for the larvae of the Western tiger swallowtail butterfly. Walk quietly among California sycamores to hear their wind song.

    California bay trees, also called California laurel, are common in Marin. The fruit ripens in the fall and resembles a small avocado; both bay and avocado trees are in the Lauraceae plant family. Native Americans roasted the fruit of bay and ground the nut into meal. When the Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869, the Golden Spike was nailed into a railroad tie made from California bay.

    Relict from a time when the state’s climate was more tropical, the California fan palm is the only palm native to the western United States. Some of the largest specimens can be found in our capital, Sacramento. Its fan-shaped leaves were used by Native Americans for shelter, food, clothing and baskets.