I find myself staring at trees reasonably often. It may be their shape or foliage that catches my eye, or it may be colourful blossoms. Sometimes its just their “treeness” that grabs my attention. Yes, “treeness” — that ineluctable quality of being a tree. But my heavy-duty tree-staring of a recent weekend was not for any of these reasons. I was amongst trees that do not flower, and which require some serious craning of the neck to see the tops of. In fact, the standout characteristic of these trees was exactly that — their height. The trees were the coast redwoods at Muir Woods, and their chief claim to fame is that they are the tallest living organism on the planet.
The coast redwoods, or Sequoia sempervirens, grow only on a thin, discontinuous stip of the Pacific coast, spanning about 500 miles across California and Oregon. The tree is closely related to the Giant Sequoia, found in the Sierras, and the Dawn Redwoods, found in China, and has developed “special features” that enable it to thrive in its environment. For instance, its leaf structure can cause fog to condense and drip to the ground underneath, from where the roots can absorb the liquid, to satisfy its massive water needs. The tree produces tannin which not only gives the characteristic red colour to its very thick bark, but also protects it from insects, fungi and fire. A curious side-effect is that since insects cannot thrive among the redwoods, neither can brids that prey on them.
The trees are also long-lived regularly reaching 600 years, and up to 2000. The tree rings allow us to count the years off, and to know which years were harsher (narrower rings) and which had plentiful rain (wider rings). Battles against fire are also worn proudly on the body.
Though the trees are tall, with the tallest being almost 380 feet, the root system does not go very deep. In fact, if the tree were a human, the roots would only be as deep as the big toe. It is the horizontal spread of the root system (upto 100 feet) that helps the tree stay balanced. Male and female cones grow on the same tree but since its seeds have a very small probability of finding suitable conditions to germinate and root (i.e. warm, moist, fresh, mineral soil), the tree can also reproduce asexually — through the sprouting of dormant buds, called burls, that grow on its base, roots, or sides. This occurs only when the tree is injured, but is the dominant form of reproduction in an established forest. It leads to the formation of “family circles” — genetically identical trees, which grow closely together, with entangled roots.
A lot of the above was cutely summarized by the forest ranger as life lessons to learn from the redwoods. The trees teach us to have a thick skin, to stand tall, to drink lots of water, to surround ourselves with family and to be rooted in our community.
It is funny to think that some of these trees were alive way back before the Europeans discovered North America. It is funny to think that their stems shrink and swell during the diurnal cycle in the summer. It is funny to think that they grow out of a seed no bigger than a tomato seed. I sometimes imagine these trees talking to each other and to us, like Tolkien’s ents. It is a very comforting thought.