The Sequoia

Bigtree (giant sequoia) base,

Sierra Nevada of California

Gigantic, knarly trunk

© 2000 by James L. Reveal

The continue with the combined text of the two Douglas manuscripts treating Douglas-fir as published in Appendix VIII of Douglas' Journal. Some additional notes and comments are added:

Tree remarkably tall, unusually straight, having the pyramidal form peculiar to the Abies tribe of Pines.13 The trees which are interspersed in groups or standing solitary in dry upland, thin, gravelly soils or on rocky situations, are thickly clad to the very ground with widespreading [sic] pendent branches, and from the gigantic size which they attain in such places and from the compact habit uniformly preserved they form one of the most striking and truly graceful objects in Nature. Those on the other hand which are in the dense gloomy forests, two-thirds of which are composed of this species, are more than usually straight, the trunks being destitute of branches to the height of 100 to 140 feet, being in many places so close together that they naturally prune themselves, and in the almost impenetrable parts where they stand at an average distance of five square feet, they frequently attain a greater height and do not exceed even 18 inches in diameter close to the ground. In such places some arrive at a magnitude exceeded by few if any trees in the world generally 20 or 30 feet apart. The actual measurement of the largest was of the following dimensions: entire length 227 feet, 48 feet in circumference 3 feet above the ground, 71/2 feet in circumference 159 feet from the ground.14

Some few even exceed that girth, but such trees do not carry their proportionate thickness to such a vast height as that above mentioned. Behind Fort George [now Astoria, Oregon], near the confluence of the Columbia River, the old establishment of the Honourable the Hudson's Bay Company, there stands a stump of this species which measures in circumference 48 feet, 3 feet above the ground, without its bark. The tree was burned down to give place to a more useful vegetable, namely potatos [sic].

On a low estimation the average side may be given at 6 feet diameter, and 160 high. The young trees have a thin, smooth, pale whitish-green bark covered with a profusion of small blisters like P. balsamea or Balm of Gilead Fir [=Abies balsamea (L.) Mill., the balsam fir found east of the Rocky Mountains], which, when broken, yield a limpid oil fluid possessing a fragrant and very peculiar odour, and which, after a few days' exposure to the action of the atmosphere, acquires a hard brittle consistence like other rosins, assuming a pale amber colour. The bark of the aged trees is rough, rotten, and corky, the pores smaller and containing less rosin, and in the most aged, 4 to 12 inches thick, greatly divided by deep fissures.

Often in the space or vacuity between the bark and the timber of standing dead trees [blank space] is found and may be flayed off in large pieces of several square yards and from its texture and colour might without examination be taken for sheepskin. There is no doubt but this curious species of Fungus hastens the decay of the timber like dry rot in Oak, through perhaps not in the same degree, and, as I have observed it only on erect trees or those dead on the stump, I infer it will not exist in the seasoned wood, consequently cannot detract any merit from it.15

Wood straight and regular in the grain, fine, heavy, and easily split; the layers or rings of a darker tint, closely resembling the timber of the well-known Larch [probably Larix laricina (Du Roi) K. Koch of eastern North America]. Whether it will prove durable or not remains yet to be known.

If we judge from the quantity of charcoal produced it will not prove so durable as the Larch; the coal is moderately hard, bulky, brown, which might be expected from the great quantity of gaseous matter it contains. What might be the exact age of one of the largest dimensions could not be ascertained, not having the means of preparing a transverse section sufficiently well polished to be able to determine with accuracy the number of annual layers. One tree 14 feet in diameter, counting from the centre, gave 167 rings or layers to within four and three-fourths of an inch of the outside, where they became so thin that they could no longer be exactly ascertained; although with sufficient accuracy upon which to ground a moderate calculation that fifty years added only nine and a quarter inches to the diameter of the trunk.

This is a common tree from Cape Blanco [southern Oregon], situated in 43°, to the Straits of Juan de Fuca [central British Columbia] in 49° North Latitude, abounding in all the mountainous parts of the coast, preferring light, dry, thin, or gravelly soils, on a substratum of sand and clay or on rocky places. A few straggling trees are seen at Cape Mendocino [northern California] in 40° which may be regarded as its most southern range, and likely it will extend much farther north than the habitat above given.16


13. When Carl Linnaeus established Pinus in 1753, he defined the genus so as to include several genera that are widely accepted today. One of the groups Linnaeus included in Pinus were those now referred to the genus Abies. In Douglas' time, this subgroup within the pine group was often referred to as the "Abies tribe." Today, the rules of nomenclature state that the term "tribe" applies to a taxonomic group above the rank of genus. The term "section" is applied now to the equivalent taxonomic group below the rank of genus that was implied by Douglas.

14. The fact that Douglas was so firm in his belief that this was one of the tallest and largest conifers reflects that this was written before he ventured into California (1830-1832) and saw the coastal redwood [Sequoia sempervirens (D. Don) Endl.]. That species is the tallest conifer (but not the tallest tree, that being an Australian eucalyptus). It would not be until the 1850s that the bigtree [Sequoiadendron giganteum (Lindl.) Buchholz] would be reported in the scientific literature. That species is the largest (or most massive) conifer (although not the largest plant-like form, that being a fungus). For the difficulties of determining what plants are the tallest, smallest, largest, etc., see Botanical Record-Breakers by Wayne Armstrong of Palomar College in San Marcos, California.

15. Douglas had not yet determined the name of the fungus and left a space to insert it.

16. Douglas-fir or "coastal Douglas-fir" (Pseudotsuga menziesii var. menziesii occurs from southwestern British Columbia southward to Monterey County, California, and irregularly eastward into the Cascade Range of Washington and Oregon, and in the Sierra Nevada of California and extreme west-central Nevada, south to Fresno County, California. Douglas' suggestion that the species would be further north proved not to be correct; rather, the variety was found much further to the south than he predicted, another indication that the manuscript was prepared prior to Douglas' visit to California in 1830.