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Want to grow a Giant Sequoia

So you want to grow a Giant Sequoia…

Q. I would like to grow a Giant Sequoia in my backyard. My property is very narrow and there isn't a lot of choice for placement; the tree could only be 20 or 30 feet away from our driveway. The yard currently has some mature trees that form a canopy about 75 feet up, but the area does get sunlight for a good part of the day. It's not wet or swampy, but water can pool up there for a few hours. Do I have any chance of success?

---Brian in Camden County, New Jersey

A. Well, of course I first had to email him back to ask 'why'?

His response was, "That's the same question my wife keeps asking me! I like the idea of planting a tree that MIGHT live more than a thousand years; it seems like a way for me to somehow escape mortality. If it's still there after a thousand years, it's because I planted it."

Now, you may be thinking that Giant Sequoias only grow on the West Coast, right? Yes and no. The two trees we're talking about here only exist naturally in very tight ranges West of the Rockies, but there have been attempts to grow them almost everywhere. There's a Giant Sequoia out at the legendary Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, PA; a famous one growing right near our Philadelphia studios at Tyler Arboretum in Media, PA that's said to have been planted around 1840, making it a strong contender to be the oldest living one on the East Coast; and a beautiful specimen that's survived for 100 years at an estate in chilly—but coastal—Rhode Island.

Oh, and that's right—there are two different 'giant' trees.

The {quote} "Giant Sequoia", whose species name is giganteum, occurs naturally in groves on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. (The name "Sequoia" honors a Native American who helped preserve the Cherokee language.) They're the biggest trees on earth by sheer volume, but they're not the tallest. The biggest surviving one, named "General Sherman", tops out at 'only' 275 feet. And forget a mere 'millennium'; in their natural habitat, trees of this species can live more than 3500 years.

The other huge tree is the 'Giant redwood' (species name sempervirens; sometimes called the 'Coast Redwood' or the 'California redwood'). They grow naturally along the Pacific in a thin strip from Monterey up to lower Oregon, and there are eight living specimens that are well over 300 feet tall apiece. But they're shorter lived than the Sequoia; in their native environment, giant redwoods 'only' survive for about 1,000 years.

And outside of their environment?

According to Wikipedia and a number of other sources, both trees seem to do exceptionally well in some parts of Europe and places like Australia. In the United States, they're almost common in the Pacific Northwest, especially around Seattle. Otherwise, 'The book' says they do better in the South than in the Northeast; but some arboretums and estates have kept Giants alive on the East Coast since virtually the time of their "discovery" by non-indigenous peoples in the early to mid 1800s.

Now, that makes them sound almost hardy—but they're not. Mike Karkowski, Director of Horticulture at Tyler Arboretum, is pleasantly amazed at the more than 150 year survival of their specimen, but notes that it is the only survivor of many that were planted at that time. (Incredibly, this tree even survived being 'topped' by some damn fool who cut the tip off for a Christmas tree in the early 1900s, which is why it isn't as pretty as the one in Rhode Island, and has had to be cabled to hold itself together.)

Anyway, Mike says that 'homeowner trees' generally only last about 20 years. They're prone to many problems outside of their range; and when and if they get big enough, they need reliable fog to continue to survive.

That's right—fog! Once a tree reaches a certain height it can't pump water up to the canopy anymore, so these giants have evolved to take water from fog—and I can assure you that fog is very reliable in their area. When I spoke in Eureka a couple summers ago, I learned first-hand that their little airport was created during World War II so that pilots could train in guaranteed foggy conditions. Very exciting takeoff.

The 'other big tree'—The Coast redwood—doesn't seem to do as well outside of its range. I could only find references to a few that have survived for 20 years at an estate in the Hamptons. Giant sequoias seem to be the tree of choice for adventurous home growers.

OK—So what's my advice to our listener? I would LIKE to suggest he switch to a dawn redwood; a deciduous relative in the Sequoia family that survives nicely on the East Coast. A lot of people enjoy growing this 'living fossil'. But Brian has this Ozymandias thing going, so I'll stick with his choice.

…BUT the standing water he describes sounds like a deal breaker. The tree at Tyler Arboretum is growing in clay soil with a high water table—but Mike Karkowski adds that it's planted higher than its surroundings and so has never had to tolerate water pooling around its trunk.

And when you consider placement, be aware that these trees also need to be sheltered from the desiccating winter wind but have a lot of airflow—and hopefully be getting that airflow in an area with non-humid summers. And, of course, they require an enormous amount of room to grow up and out if they do manage to survive the first couple of hundred years. (After which, they'll need that reliable fog.)

And it is probably not a coincidence that most of the long-term survivors growing outside of their 'comfort zone' have had the benefit of professional Arboretum staffers on hand all their lives.

But if he—or any of our other listeners—still wants to try, they should visit local arboretums with specimens for advice. (There are trees growing in these professional surroundings in most parts of the country.) And I'd avoid buying souvenir seedlings from California (unless you live there, of course). Several cold-hardy varieties have been bred specifically for the adventurous out-of-town amateur arborist; look for these named varieties and try and pick one whose breeding best matches your climate.

So—if Brian finds a good spot and succeeds, will the tree {quote} "make him immortal"?

Not unless he can ensure that the land is safe from other uses for the next thousand years or so.

A better way to achieve that goal might be with a bonsai. These trees train very well; and there are bonsais alive today that are 500 years old. This way, his spirit would live on in a tree that his descendants could take with them as they moved around—as opposed to one that gets cut down to make room for a gas station in 2035.

Want to learn more? Here are a couple Wiki links with fascinating stories and photos:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sequoiadendron_giganteum

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sequoia_sempervirens

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