What is a Redwood Tree?

Here is a comprehensive look at the giant redwood trees, how they survived for so long, how they reproduce, where they usually grow, and the conditions in which they thrive.

This is a close look at a forest of tall redwood trees.

Sequoia Sempervirens

Out of all of the 101 Types of Trees that we have been describing in this article series, there is no other tree more impressive than the redwood. This is a tree that is famous all over the planet because of its uncontested height and incredibly long life expectancy. Redwoods are coniferous evergreen trees.

However, there is so much more to this tree than those simple facts. We all know that these trees are not only the tallest living organism on the planet, they are also some of the oldest. The ponderosa pine takes first place in that category, with some trees being over 5000 years old, and redwoods coming in second with the oldest known specimen being 2200 years old.

The redwood tree is the sole surviving species of the genus Sequoia, and it is also a member of the cypress botanical family (Cupressaceae). These impossibly tall trees are the tallest on the planet, and will often exceed 115 METERS in height, and that’s not including their roots! The world’s tallest tree is redwood.

The name is in reference to the subfamily sequioideae, and the name for giant sequoia; Sequoiadendron. All of these names are derived from a very famous polymath, George Gist. George Gist’s Cherokee name was Sequoyah, and he was the first person to create the Cherokee syllabary, adapting the oral language into a written language.

Redwoods are also known by the names; coast redwood, coastal redwood tree, and California redwood. They get the name California redwood from their very narrow natural growing range. The Pacific Northwest of North America is one of the only places on the planet with the right growing conditions for these magnificent giants.

What do Redwood Trees Look Like?

Root System

Redwoods develop very shallowly and wide-spreading lateral roots. They occur in soils that are very damp, and therefore do not need deep roots to access moisture reserves. The roots are wide-spreading enough to support their enormous trunks, and only grow about 3 meters deep.

One very interesting thing to note about redwood root systems is their adaptability to flood damage. When an area has flooded, redwoods will direct their root system upwards into the recently upturned sediment layers.

From here, a secondary root system will develop from buds that lay dormant in the base of the trunk. Once the second root system is developed, the old root system will die. This creates a counter lean in the opposite direction of the flood, which will end up stabilizing the tree. The tree will also increase wood production on the vulnerable side to help create a supportive buttress.

This type of adaptation is extremely unique, resulting in pure redwood stands in areas that are very prone to flooding where other species cannot survive.

Dimensions

It is no secret that redwood trees are the largest living specimens on the planet. They grow to be an average of 115 meters tall, and trunk diameters of around 9 meters. Before they were heavily logged throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries, there were some trees that were well over 140 meters tall.

The tallest trees grow in deep valleys and gullies, as these areas are the dampest with streams that run all year long, and these areas also tend to trap clouds of fog. Trees that grow above this fog layer will be shorter and thinner.

This is a close look at a couple of tall mature redwood trees.

Growth Pattern

Redwood trees develop very straight and upright trunks that run into a conical crown. The crown is comprised of horizontally growing and slightly drooping branches.

Bark

This is a close look at the barks of the redwood trees in a forest.

One of the most impressive features of the redwood tree is its bark. Redwood bark is upwards of 30 cm thick. This makes redwood trees incredibly resilient to fire damage and the bark is capable of protecting the heartwood.

The bark is thick, very soft, and fibrous. When pieces of bark are ripped away it reveals a striking red/brown color of inner bark, hence the name “redwood”. As the tree matures the bark will become darker.

Foliage

This is a look up at the tall canopy of the redwood trees.

Redwood leaves are needle-like, though not nearly as sharp or firm as pine or cedar needles. Redwood needles are variable depending on whether or not they are growing on an old tree or a young tree.

A needle will be flat and less than an inch long on a young tree. Needles in the top area of the crown on an old tree are like scales occurring on shoots in order to access as much sunlight as possible.

They are dark green on the top surface, with blue/white stomatal bands on the underside. Needles are arranged spirally along a twig. Larger leaves will become twisted at the base to become a flat plane for the maximum capacity for light capture.

How do Redwood Trees Reproduce?

Cones

This is a close look at a branch of a redwood tree with small cones.

Redwood trees are monoecious, meaning that both male cones and female cones occur on the same tree.

Pollen cones (pollen-producing, male characteristics) are ovular and 4-6mm long. Seed cones (ovule producing, female characteristics) are ovoid and 1 inch long. They have 15-25 spirally arranged scales.

Cones are wind-pollinated, and pollination usually occurs in the winter. Cones will reach full maturation about 9 months after pollination.

Seeds

Each seed cone will bear 3-7 seeds, and each seed has a set of 2 wings which 3-4mm long. Seeds are released from the seed cone scales on the cone is fully dried out and openings are created.

In one season a tree will hold up to 150 seeds, but they have a very low viability rate of 15%. This is both a benefit and a hindering. These few amounts of viable seeds will result in fewer seeds that will ever successfully germinate. However, this will also deter seed predators who won’t browse on redwood seeds because so many are empty.

Sexual Maturity

Redwood trees will start their seed production between 10 and 15 years old.

Asexual Reproduction

A close look at a few young saplings of a redwood tree.

Redwood trees are also so successful because they are able to readily reproduce asexually. This means that they can sprout new redwood seedlings from bud sprouting or lignotubers.

A lignotuber is a woody capsule that grows just below the surface of the earth at the base of the tree trunk. This capsule contains dormant buds that will be stimulated to grow into a seedling only when the adult tree starts to die.

If a tree falls over, new sprouts will emerge right along the length of the trunk, resulting in strangely straight rows of new growth. Sprouts will also emerge from fallen branches or at the stumps of cut trees.

History of Redwood Tree Logging

A large piece of redwood log being moved with a crane.

It is a common opinion today that the logging of redwood trees is wrong, and old-growth forests should be preserved. That is why these trees are now protected, as they were over-logged in the past to the point of them now being endangered.

Redwoods were once the number one most valued timber species in the entire lumber industry, which makes sense, considering their incredibly fast growth, straight trunks, attractive wood, and stunning heights.

Before the era of commercial redwood logging began in the 1850s, these trees occurred naturally in 810,000 hectares throughout California and Oregon. Now they only populate a strip that is 470 miles long, and 46 miles wide.

Much of the redwood old growth was decimated in those early days, but groves that occurred in hard-to-reach gullies and valleys still remain. These trees are protected by the conservancy. The redwood grove has become a rare thing.

Where do Redwood Trees Grow?

This is a close look at a forest of redwood trees with a man looking up at one tree for scale.

The redwood forest originally occurred naturally throughout northern California and southern Oregon. Since then, seeds were brought to different countries, and redwood plantations have existed there for over 100 years now. Redwoods have now been naturalized in South Africa, Western Cape, Great Britain, Italy, Portugal, Haida Gwaii, Hawaii, and New Zealand.

The trees that grow in New Zealand can actually grow taller than their ancestors could in California, and New Zealand has more consistent precipitation and humidity all year round, which are the exact growing conditions that redwood trees need.

Local redwood forests occur in elevations between 30 and 750 meters above sea level. They will not grow directly beside the ocean as they are sensitive to salt spray. They tend to grow in mountains where moisture from the ocean evaporates and collects. They grow best in the Sierra Nevada and the Santa Cruz mountains. Lucky for us, these areas have many hiking trails to be able to gaze upon these towering trees.

What are the Growing Conditions of Redwood Trees?

This is a close look at a forest of redwood trees by the lake.

Water

The absolute most important growing condition the redwood trees require is water. They can only exist in rainforest-like conditions. They require heavy seasonal rains and over 2500 mm of precipitation per year. Fog accounts for 30% of their yearly water access!

Redwoods need coastal air and heavy fog drop to keep their forests damp all year round. They will grow in flood-prone areas and are tolerant to waterlogging just to receive that necessary water.

Their height is also entirely dependent on water. Since their trunks are so tall, gravity prevents water from reaching the tops of their trunks, and their leaves are almost always stressed for water. They have to absorb water from fog through their leaves. Bark can also absorb water through their epidermal tissues.

Soil

When soil is so heavily waterlogged, it will end up creating soil with far fewer nutrients. This is ideal for the redwood tree, as it encourages a deepening of the biotic community in redwood forests.

The forest relies on the recycling of dead plants to access nutrients, as well as creating symbiotic relationships with one another. Redwoods and other plant species, like the Douglas fir, Pacific madrone, tanoak, redwood sorrel, western hemlock, ferns, mosses, and mushrooms will all engage in a nutrient exchange in order to keep the forest healthy.

Sun Exposure

It’s not difficult to guess that redwood trees are sun-loving. Why else would they grow to be so incredibly tall? Their leaves will also arrange themselves in order to have the utmost access to sun exposure.

What are the Damaging Agents to the Redwood Tree?

Logging

The number one way in which redwoods are damaged is through logging. They were so valuable in the lumber industry that their natural growing range of 810,000 hectares was reduced to a mere 460 miles.

Climate Change

California and Oregon have been experiencing some serious climate changes in the past few decades. With increasing temperatures come increased annual wildfires and droughts. Seeing as water is the most integral part of a redwood tree’s success, they are heavily impacted by these dry seasons which are increasing in severity and length.

Redwood Resistance

This is a close look at a hollowed out burnt redwood tree that is still alive.

Another reason why redwood trees are just so cool is that they are so incredibly tough. They are completely resistant to insect attack and fungal infection, as well a rotting. This type of resilience comes from a truly ancient species.

They are also completely resilient to fire damage. Redwoods have very high concentrations of terpenoids and tannic acid in their wood, bark, roots, and leaves. Their wood also contains very little resin or flammable pitch.

As mentioned before, redwoods also have extremely thick bark which is always completely filled with water, making it very difficult for fire to take hold of the tree.

If it so happens that a tree is damaged by fire, it will simply sprout new branches or an entirely new crown. If the tree is killed, new buds will simply sprout from the base and grow into a new colony of redwood trees.

Not only are they resilient to forest fires, redwoods actually benefit from it. When wildfires run through a forest it will kill all competing species, and will then allow dormant redwood seedlings to germinate!

How are Redwood Trees Used?

A man standing inside the tunneled trunk of a redwood tree.

Wood

Redwood wood is needless to say, quite expensive. Redwood is very rarely harvested anymore. The wood is lightweight with an even grain. It is a lovely red color. The wood is also naturally resistant to decay and insect damage, and it has no warping damages.

Redwood wood is used for furniture, house siding, railroad ties, trestles, and many more things. Redwood burls have also been used to make tabletops.

Wildlife

Redwoods make for very important habitats for birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians of all types. Old-growth redwoods are also the only known habitat for the extremely rare and threatened spotted owl and marbled murrelet.

Black bears eat the inner bark of younger trees, and black-tailed deer will eat the very young sprouts of redwood trees.

Ethnobotany

Redwood trees have been an integral part of First Nations communities for centuries. Yurok peoples who occupied the redwood regions before European settlements would engage in controlled burns of redwood forests.

By burning the ground cover in redwood forests, it would cut out the competition for tanoak populations. They would be able to harvest acorns and create forest openings. Controlled burns would also boost populations of other plants that were valued for their medicinal properties and for basket making.

Tourism

A mother and child standing amongst giant redwood trees.

Lucky for us, the national parks of America make it possible for us to go and visit these absolutely magnificent trees. Hiking trails swerve throughout old growth and new growth, making us a part of the rich history of the redwood forests.

FAQs

Are redwood tree roots invasive?

Redwood tree roots are not invasive, though they are incredibly adaptable.

Redwoods develop very shallowly and wide-spreading lateral roots. They occur in soils that are very damp, and therefore do not need deep roots to access moisture reserves. The roots are wide-spreading enough to support their enormous trunks.

One very interesting thing to note about redwood root systems is their adaptability to flood damage. When an area has flooded, redwoods will direct their root system upwards into the recently upturned sediment layers.

From here, a secondary root system will develop from buds that lay dormant in the base of the trunk. Once the second root system is developed, the old root system will die. This creates a counter lean in the direction of the flood, which will end up stabilizing the tree.

The tree will also increase wood production on the vulnerable side to help create a supportive buttress. This type of adaptation is extremely unique, resulting in pure redwood stands in areas that are very prone to flooding.

How deep are redwood tree roots?

Redwood tree roots will grow to depths of about 3 meters below the soil.

How tall do redwood trees get?

It is no secret that redwood trees are the largest living specimens on the planet. They grow to be an average of 115 meters tall, and trunk diameters of around 9 meters. Before they were heavily logged throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries, there were some trees that were well over 140 meters tall.

The tallest trees grow in deep valleys and gullies, as these areas are the dampest with streams that run all year long, and these areas also tend to trap clouds of fog. Trees that grow above this fog layer will be shorter and thinner.

How fast do redwood trees grow?

Redwood trees are incredibly fast-growing and can grow between 1 and 2 meters every year.

How long do redwood trees live?

Redwood trees are some of the oldest living creatures on the planet. They have an average life expectancy of 1200-1800 years, though the oldest tree on record is 2200 years old.

Are redwood and sequoia trees the same?

The redwood tree is the sole surviving species of the genus Sequoia, and it is also a member of the cypress botanical family (Cupressaceae). So redwood is the tree, sequoia is the genus.

Can redwood trees grow in India?

Though they do not grow naturally in India, redwood trees can be cultivated in areas that receive enough annual precipitation and moisture to sustain healthy growth.

What is a dawn redwood tree?

Metasequoia glyptostroboides, or the dawn redwood, is a conifer species that is part of the genus metasequoia, which is the subgenus of the sequoia genus. Their natural growing range occurs in eastern Asia.

What is a giant sequoia tree?

Sequoiadendron giganteum, or the giant sequoia, is the sole member of the subgenus Sequoiadendron of the genus sequoia. Needless to say, this genus’ members are only tall trees.

What is the world’s tallest tree?

The tallest redwood tree on the planet is called Hyperion, and it is 115.7 meters tall and a trunk diameter of 7 meters. That’s one big tree!

What is the world’s oldest redwood tree?

The oldest redwood tree on record is said to be over 2200 years old.

Where is the redwood tree that you can drive through?

There is a giant redwood tree called the Chandelier Tree, that had a hole cut through the base as a tourist attraction. The trunk was so wide that a car could easily drive through it. It grew in a park near Yosemite national park in the Santa Cruz mountains state park.

However, very recently during a severe storm the tree, unfortunately, fell due to the weakness that came from the car-sized hole cut into its trunk.

How much does a redwood tree weigh?

If we’re going by the tallest and largest living redwood tree, we can safely say that it weighs a completely baffling 1.6 million pounds.

Is redwood a hardwood or a softwood?

Redwood wood is actually softwood, though that may be surprising to hear considering that hardwood trees are usually more valuable.

Redwood wood is needless to say, quite expensive. Redwood is very rarely harvested anymore. The wood is lightweight with an even grain. It is a lovely red color. The wood is also naturally resistant to decay and insect damage, and it has no warping damages.

Redwood wood is used for furniture, house siding, railroad ties, trestles, and many more things. Redwood burls have also been used to make tabletops.

What much water does a redwood tree need?

The absolute most important growing condition the redwood trees require is water. They can only exist in rainforest-like conditions. They require heavy seasonal rains and over 2500 mm of precipitation per year. Fog accounts for 30% of their yearly water access!

Redwoods need coastal air and heavy fog drop to keep their forests damp all year round. They will grow in flood-prone areas and are tolerant to waterlogging just to receive that necessary water.

Their height is also entirely dependent on water. Since their trunks are so tall, gravity prevents water from reaching the tops of their trunks and leaves are almost always stressed for water. They have to absorb water from fog through their leaves. Bark can also absorb water through their epidermal tissues.

What dye is made from the extraction process of the redwood tree?

Sequoia extract natural dye comes for the seed cones of the redwood tree. Though only a very small amount of pigment is able to be extracted from the cones, it is a very beautiful red/beige color.

Can you bonsai a redwood tree?

It is possible to bonsai a redwood tree as long as it starts its life out in a pot, and it has constantly damp growing conditions.

How many redwood trees are left?

It is unknown exactly how many redwood trees are left, but it is known that their natural growing range in the United States now is a span of 460 miles long and 46 miles wide. There are other groves in New Zealand and certain European countries as well.

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