California colossus rises above the South

The big tree at 558 Great King St (one-way north) opposite the North Ground. It's shape reminds...
The big tree at 558 Great King St (one-way north) opposite the North Ground. It's shape reminds me of billowing smoke from the launch of a huge rocket. Photos: Gregor Richardson.

Big tree. What marvellous Teutonic brevity and understatement. Most 2 year olds would know what it means, writes Mark Clark.

Mark Clark
Mark Clark

Sequoiadendron giganteum (the Greek for tree and the Latin for big are in there) is one of the largest living things on the planet and certainly the biggest - though not quite the tallest or oldest - tree. And, would you believe, it's a proud Californian - as if Californians don't already have more than enough to brag about.

Yeah, as well as having Hollywood and Silicon Valley, California boasts the biggest (Sequoiadendron giganteum), tallest (Sequoia sempervirens) and oldest (Pinus longaeva) trees on Earth.

Anyone who drives north on State Highway 1 from the city centre can't help but notice one of the best-looking big trees in the South. It towers over 558 Great King St opposite the North Ground. If the lights at the St David St intersection stop you, check out this jolly green giant through the upper left of your windscreen (making sure not to miss the green light, of course). I can't help wondering how big the landowners and the council will let it grow before it gets the chop for safety reasons.

There are lots of other fine big trees beside the North Ground itself, around the University of Otago campus, in Dunedin Botanic Garden, and scattered around the northern hill suburbs. It's hard to miss them. Venerable big tree specimens watch benevolently (without any CIA or NSA connections, one trusts) over parks, botanic gardens and domains throughout Otago and the rest of New Zealand. Clearly, the trees love it here, as do their Californian rellies Monterey pine (Pinus radiata) and Monterey cypress (Hesperocyparis macrocarpa previously Cupressus macrocarpa). As a result, many of the landscapes of rural New Zealand have become honorary Californian treescapes; dark green borders and exclamation marks punctuating pastures, crops and homestead gardens.

A trio of impressive big trees in the Arthur St Reserve, near Otago Boys High School, with...
A trio of impressive big trees in the Arthur St Reserve, near Otago Boys High School, with another solitary big tree in the background. If you lean into the space in the middle of the three massive trunks and look up, you get some idea of what it's like to be in a Californian grove of these titans.
It is estimated that "General Sherman'', the largest one still growing, weighs in at a hefty 2100 tonnes or so, about the same as 10 fully-grown blue whales. The General also has a chest-height diameter of 8.8m; about the same as five adults of average height lying head to toe.

Like many other tree aficionados, I used to think it was marvellous that the white establishment of the 1800s and early 1900s was willing to name the biggest (Sequoiadendron giganteum) and tallest (Sequoia sempervirens) trees in the world after an accomplished native American, Sequoia (or Sequoyah), who invented an effective alphabet for his Cherokee nation.

Sadly, the truth often spoils a good story. It seems that the tree name sequoia actually comes from the Latin for sequence instead, referring to the chemical substance sequoine (C 13 H 10) in the leaves.

Names aside, there's something quintessentially American about these trees. Maybe it's their amazing vigour - or their determination to be the biggest - or their ability to dominate all the other trees around them. It's as though they're a symbol of the United States' phenomenal rise to superpower status over the past 150 years. Even their shape is like billowing green smoke from a huge, powerful rocket, recalling last century's quest to reach the moon.

It's surprising how soft and spongy the outer bark of this arboreal colossus is: try punching it with your knuckles some time. Among other things, the thick bark protects these trees from the fierce Californian fires that we now see regularly on the news.


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