Mendocino Redwood Company


Redwoods and Dinosaurs

An ancient redwood forest has to be seen to be believed,
and perhaps believed to be truly seen.


We will never know when Sequoia sempervirens or coast redwood first sprang to life upon earth. The date was well before the human species came on the scene. There is evidence that coast redwoods have existed as far back as 65 million years ago. This was the end of the Cretaceous period, the last time that dinosaurs, like Tyrannosaurus rex, Triceratops, and Velociraptor roamed the earth.

Even today, conifers, the plant division that includes coast redwoods along with other trees like pine, cedar, fir, and cypress, are the oldest, the largest, and the tallest of all living organisms. Methuselah, a 26-ft bristlecone pine in the White Mountains of eastern California, is estimated, as of 2006, to be 4772 years old. In 1964, a live bristlecone pine in eastern Nevada named Prometheus was cut down and later found, tragically, to be 4862 years old. Giant sequoia (Sequoia giganteum) are the largest trees in the world, measured by the amount of wood they contain. General Sherman, a tree in Sequoia National Park (California), is 274.9 feet high, 102.6 ft around at its base, and weighs an estimated 2.7 million pounds. The distance from the ground to its first large branch is 130 ft—enough to accommodate the Lincoln Memorial and then some. According to the National Park Service, the giant sequoia, or Sierra redwood, only grow in about 75 isolated groves in the Sierra Nevada, the eastern mountains of California.

Coast redwoods, currently the tallest trees in the world, have reached close to 400 ft and some have survived over 2000 years as well. In 2002, the Stratosphere Giant, a coast redwood in the Rockefeller Forest of Humboldt Redwoods State Park in northern California, was measured at 369 ft 4.8 in. The Dyerville Giant, a coast redwood in the same park, was estimated to be 1600 years old when it toppled in March 1991. At 372 ft it was the tallest tree in modern times. According to the Guinness Book of Records, the tallest tree ever measured was a Eucalyptus regnans or gum tree from Victoria, Australia. A forester, William Ferguson, reported in 1872 that it was 435 ft. tall. Some have questioned the reliability of logging records almost 150 years old. In any event, such giant specimens do not exist today. The largest living specimen of the swamp gum is about 302 ft high.

LIke the dinosaurs, the old coast redwoods themselves seem almost from another time, awesomely large, not on the same scale as a human-sized world. They have been called "living fossils." In Calistoga, California, you can see true coast redwood fossils. They are part of a petrified pliocene forest, discovered in the 1850s, with specimens of coast redwood trees that were toppled about 3 million years ago by a volcanic eruption. One of the specimens is 150 ft long.

Ancient relatives of the coast redwood extended into central and western North America, Greenland, Spitzbergen, Europe, and Japan. At present, coast redwoods grow only along a narrow band from southwestern Oregon to Monterey, California. They thrive along the coast in northern California where cool fog from the ocean brings moisture for growth and blocks the evaporating rays of the sun. Condensed fog slowly drips off the redwood foliage watering the roots of the giant trees as well as the ferns and plants surrounding them.

Coast redwoods are among the most complex plant forms on earth. A single tree may have many re-sprouted trunks so that the crown of a redwood is almost like a self-contained forest. In fact, "baby" redwoods generally sprout around the base of a tree, taking in nutrients from the mature tree and forming a circle of trees called a fairy ring.

Today only about 5% of the coast redwoods, here before the European settlers, remain. The history of MRC forests is in small part a story of ancient survival as a few pockets of old growth remain across our landscape and provide unique and indispensable habitat for certain wildlife. In the main, however, it is a story about how the land has been impacted by social, industrial, and technological change and how new attitudes and visions are shaping its future.



Illustration Credit

The illustration comparing the distribution and characteristics of the coastal redwood and the giant sequoia are courtesy of the National Park Service.

Secondary Sources

Mattison, Elise."California's Fossil Forest," California Geology 44 (1990):195-202.

Noss, Reed, ed. The Redwood Forest: History, Ecology, and Conservation of the Coast Redwoods. Washington, DC: Island Press, 2000.

Snyder, James A. "The Ecology of Sequoia sempervirens." Master's Thesis, San Jose State University, 1992.


 Mendocino Redwood Company - Ukiah, California