Sequoiadendron giganteum
giant sequoia, Sierra redwood, big tree

Cupressaceae (cypress family)
Sierra Nevada
Giant sequoia, Canfield Court
Giant sequoia in foreground, Canfield Court, behind the Bookstore. The grove of coast redwoods behind it allows convenient comparison. Sairus Patel, 10 Mar 2017

The well-known big trees, or giant sequoias, need no introduction. They grow to around 300 feet and live to over 3000 years. The bark and cones resemble those of the coast redwood, except that the cones are at least twice as big, but the leaves are quite different, being small and packed tightly like tiles around the branchlets.

Perhaps campus residents are deterred by visions of trunks wide enough to drive a car through, but growth is relatively slow; as a result the giant sequoia does not drop much litter (a problem with coast redwood) and the tiny awl-shaped leaves, at most ½ inch long, melt inoffensively into shrubbery.

Giant sequoias are not as hungry for water as coast redwoods. They may not be as tall either, but, with their greatly larger girths, may contain twice the weight of wood, around 1300 tons. The mass of such a tree is hard to appreciate. Imagine 45 automobiles, each weighing 2 tons, balanced precariously on top of one another to match the height of a giant sequoia; that would be 90 tons, rather more than the weight of a big whale. The weight of a mature giant sequoia is more than 14 times greater.

Fossil evidence shows that this tree once grew in Europe.

Like the incense cedar, it typically grows well on campus for a few decades into beautiful young trees before their leader branches suffer wilting and dieback from Botryosphaeria canker.

leaf comparison
Branchlet of Sequoia sempervirens, coast redwood, on left, compared with Sequoiadendron giganteum, giant sequoia. Trees of Stanford, by Ronald Bracewell

Locations

Giant sequoia was not common on campus, but has been featured in some major plantings since 2005.

The specimen most centrally located on campus makes its home in Canfield Court, east of the Bookstore, growing in company with coast redwoods and deciduous dawn redwoods, allowing convenient comparison. There is a sizable but declining specimen between 676 and 694 Alvarado Row dating to 1930, and three nearby at 817 Pine Hill Road. Two specimens are left of the driveway at 525 Los Arboles Avenue. Another pair is on the east side of Keck Science Building at the California Native Garden, appropriately enough. In Palo Alto, see a giant in the backyard of 1519 Mariposa Drive. Every one of these specimens is handsome.

A formidable plantation of 32 edge three sides of the Arrillaga Outdoor Education and Recreation Center. Another similarly sized planting fronts the Arrilla Family Sports Center and the median of Campus Drive in the vicinity. Twenty rim the north edge of Frost Amphitheater, outside the fence, with a few extending into the lawn of Bing Concert Hall.

On Lomita Drive at Harmony House, there is a crazy cultivar named ‘Pendula,’ about 10 feet tall, that looks more like a praying mantis than a tree. The younger half of the trunk is horizontal; there are a few short vertical leaders, but they are doomed to fall of their own weight and hang down as all their numerous predecessors have done. A striking young S. giganteum, rapidly reaching upward in the form of a narrow cone, is in Serra Grove, off Serra Mall at Sequoia Hall. Distinguished by its intense blue coloration, it is a cultivar named ‘Hazel Smith,’ planted Spring 2002.

Nomenclature

The giant sequoia has gone through a flurry of botanical name changes on both sides of the pond, including Wellingtonia gigantea and Sequoia gigantea. The correct name is now widely accepted as being Sequoiadendron giganteum. For a rather entertaining account of its nomenclatural journey, see its entry in the Gymnosperm Database. In a Kew Gardens grove the sign still uses the name Wellingtonia (Wellingtonia gigantea Lindley 1853), as of 2005.

Sequoiadendron, Sequoia, and Metasequoia were all part of the Taxodiaceae, but are now considered to be in the Cupressaceae.

Name derivation: Sequoiadendron – combination of Sequoia and the Greek dendron (tree); giganteum – giant

About this Entry: The main text of this entry is from the book Trees of Stanford and Environs, by Ronald Bracewell, published 2005. Around 2010: Edited nomenclature discussion; added Botryosphaeria note [John Rawlings]. Mar 2017: Reorganized entry (still in progress); added recent planting locations & images; updated family from Taxodiaceae to Cupressaceae [SP].