Cupressaceae (cypress family) Sequoia

Sequoia sempervirens coast redwood

Coastal California
Coast redwood grove, Canfield Court. Sairus Patel, 22 Nov 2022
Sequoia sempervirens grove, blue-gray selection ‘Filoli’ foreground, Canfield Court. John Rawlings, 25 May 2007

Redwoods are native to the campus and densely clothe the slopes rising to the west. The coast redwood is America’s tallest tree, reaching 350 feet or so and living to well over 1000 years.* The local virgin stands were all cut long ago, so that the present wild trees on the foothills, substantial though they may appear, are quite young. By the time the 19th century was drawing to close, redwood lumber provided, in the California coastal region, almost the sole material for siding, railroad ties, boards, shingles, and fence posts; it was the cheapest lumber available. No wonder little old-growth forest remains. When William H. Brewer, author of Up and Down California in 1860–1864 visited the Santa Cruz Mountains, he reported one that was “nineteen to twenty feet” in diameter. (Brewer also reported that the grasslands of California were then already dominated by Spanish oats, as they still are today.)

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

Guinness World Records awards tallest-redwood status at 369 feet to the Stratosphere Giant, discovered by Chris Atkins in 2000 in Humboldt Redwoods State Park. The Mendocino Tree (368 feet), in Montgomery Woods State Preserve, is not far behind. In Redwood National Park, the Harry Cole Tree (366 feet) and National Geographic Society Tree (366 feet) are respectable contenders. The Paradox Tree (366 feet) in Humboldt Park also is right up there, as are numerous others, the exact locations of which are not widely publicized. Michael Taylor, Robert Van Pelt, and others have measured many of the giants using direct tape drop (when they are allowed to climb the trees), as well as laser survey devices and other schemes.

It is estimated that in 1830 the area occupied by the redwoods was equivalent to that of a coastal strip 375 miles long and a mile wide; today only about 5 percent of old growth forest remains. Political forces representing commercial logging interests, including jobs, have not displayed any more concern for the environment than one would expect. We all want houses and other wood products such as cartons and paper towels, but few of us want to preserve primeval forests; well, that is democracy. Private benefactors willing to buy out legal property owners have become key players.

Redwoods have been regularly planted on campus and continue to be popular. An example is the dense planting in 2003 of redwoods, along with deodar cedars, along Campus Drive West at the Clark Center (Bio-X). In many locations, however, they do not receive the moisture that they depend upon when growing in the fog belt and, as a result, do not thrive; if regular summer irrigation is withheld they may die. Obviously redwoods should not be planted with coast live oaks, which expect a rainless summer and if kept moist will die of root rot. It would be interesting to locate the biggest redwood on campus. A specimen probably planted in 1924 at 1509 Portola Avenue, Palo Alto, measured 114 feet in 1995. The backyard coast redwood at 3759 La Donna Street, an official Palo Alto heritage tree, measured 125 feet tall with a diameter of 64 inches in 1999.

Numerous redwoods are in the area of Salvatierra Walk and the back of the Law School that were in the gardens of early faculty homes that once occupied the area. A fine grove is between the Faculty Club and Kingscote Gardens; one of Stanford’s best single specimens is in the lawn north of the Old Union. Two trees that have not lost their lower branches grow at 849 Pine Hill Road.

A group of five, the largest with a 15-foot girth, is off Serra Mall east of Herrin Hall with a plaque reading as follows:


These redwoods were planted in 1915 by Stanford botany professor and pioneer American plant physiologist George J. Peirce, faculty member from 1897 to 1933. in accordance with Professor Peirce’s intention, the university named these natural monuments “Stanford Palos Altos.” They symbolize Stanford’s strength, independence, and enduring quality.

El Palo Alto, for which the city of Palo Alto is named and which appears on Stanford’s seal, stands beside San Francisquito Creek in Palo Alto.

Our neighboring city’s landmark El Palo Alto redwood was said to be 1064 years old in 2004. Its diameter is 7½ feet and height 110 feet (in 1951 it measured 134 feet). Originally double trunked, it lost the second one in 1886, either in a huge storm or, more likely, during construction of a new trestle bridge by Southern Pacific Railroad.

Redwood splinters contain some nasty substance that causes inflammation, something that is known to termites, who do not feed on redwood fence posts or house piers until all other available wood is eaten. On a certain sunny fall day, just after the first rains, all the winged termites emerge and fill the air. After the mating rituals are over, the discarded wings form an impressive amount of litter.

The name Sequoia honors Sequoyah (circa 1770–1843), the man of Georgia who reduced the Cherokee language to writing by means of a syllabary that he invented. In a language with only four vowel sounds, one symbol, oriented in the four cardinal directions, can stand for four different syllables. The Inuit have also adopted this way of writing.

* The tallest known coast redwood. The San Jose Mercury reported October 15, 2006:

It won’t be on any tourist maps, but researchers have confirmed that a redwood named Hyperion in California’s Redwood National Park is the world’s tallest tree. Steve Sillett, a forestry professor at California State University-Humboldt, recently climbed Hyperion and measured it at 379.1 feet, one foot taller than previously thought. Hyperion edged aside the previous record holder, a 370.5-foot redwood called Stratosphere Giant in nearby Humboldt State Park. Officials would not pinpoint the tree’s exact location because they are worried that too many visitors could damage the tree’s delicate ecosystem.

Name derivation: Sequoia – Sequoyah (circa 1770–1843), mentioned in main text above; sempervirens – always green.

About this Entry: The main text of this entry is from the book Trees of Stanford and Environs, by Ronald Bracewell, published 2005. Note on Hyperion subsquently added by John Rawlings. Family name updated from Taxodiaceae to Cupressaceae (Sep 2017, SP). All locations verified (Apr 2020, SP).