Conifers Gardening Trees

SMA Urban Tree of the Year 2021: The Giant Sequoia  

Painting of giant sequoia.

Painting by Gary Stutler (garystutler.com); image distributed by SMA with permission of artist.

Each year, members of the Society of Municipal Arborists (SMA) nominate and vote for the SMA Urban Tree of the Year. The 2021 choice is the majestic giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum). What follows is derived from a press release offered by the Association.

Distribution map of giant sequoia in the wild.
The natural distribution of the giant sequoia is limited to a small area in California. Ill.: vancouverislandbigtrees.blogspot.com

Although giant sequoia is native to a small swath of western slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California, its hardiness (given most generously as USDA Zone 6a to 9b, with some sources constraining that range) makes it suitable for use beyond its indigenous terrain and indeed, it’s been planted in many western spaces, urban or otherwise. Like most trees it prefers a loamy soil, even moisture, mid-range pH, adequate soil volume, freedom from soil compaction, and full sun. However, it can grow in less than these ideal conditions, and the more well-established the tree, the better it will be able to ride out periods of drought. Full sun appears to be the least negotiable condition for giant sequoia. 

Giant sequoia in Colorado
This young giant sequoia is growing in Fort Collins, Colorado, where Wyoming State Division of Forestry Community Forestry Coordinator Tara Costanzo visits her family. She says, “Although these trees in Colorado may not grow nearly as large without the abundant moisture found in the coastal west, in a protected, well-cared-for landscape, these trees can thrive in a Rocky Mountain Front Range community.” Photo Courtesy Tara Costanzo 

Addressing the elephant in the room: how can a giant sequoia, in all its massive glory, be considered for urban spaces? 

Gordon Matassa is an Administrative Analyst in the Tree Services Division of the Oakland, California Department of Public Works. “If planted correctly in urban areas, this species can bridge the natural world to the cities that many of us call home,” he says. “Giant sequoia is well suited for climate-appropriate urban areas when given enough room to grow, such as when planted in city parks. We have several giant sequoias in our parks in Oakland, California, where they stand out as sentinels in the urban landscape.”

Giant sequoias are numerous in Portland, Oregon; many of them were planted circa 1900. There are seven Portland Heritage Tree program giant sequoias in the City—some growing in parks, others in the City right-of-way or in residential front and side yards. The tallest of them is growing in Portland’s Mt Tabor Park; it’s 200 feet (60 m) tall, with a 50-foot (15-meter) canopy spread and a 25.3-foot (7.7-meter) trunk circumference. (The genetic potential of giant sequoia’s height, given ideal conditions, can exceed 250 feet/75 m).

According to the Portland Parks and Recreation website, “Nearly 500 sequoias and California redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) have been inventoried in the City, and 93% were rated as being in good or fair condition. These trees thrive in our urban forest, and as large-form evergreens, they provide us with enormous public health and environmental benefits. A mature giant sequoia in Portland can store over 6 tons of carbon and scrub pounds of pollutants from the air annually.

The City of Eugene, Oregon is celebrating the early fulfillment of their goal of planting 2021 giant sequoias by 2021. According to their website, “Giant sequoia grow quickly and are low maintenance because they are resistant to drought, wind, flooding, fire, and storm damage. While working hard to clean the air and sequester carbon, the giant sequoia also make our community more attractive, livable, and prosperous.” Through the “2021 by 2021” initiative, the City planted giant sequoia in shared public areas such as parks and street medians, as well as on the grounds of schools, local businesses, and homes. Eugene originally conceived the effort in honor of the City’s hosting of the 2021 World Athletics Championships, which have been rescheduled for 2022.”


A Bit More About the Giant Sequoia

By Larry Hodgson

So much for the press release from the Society of Municipal Arborists, but I thought I’d add further bits of information about this most striking tree. 

The name sequoia is a tribute to Cherokee chief Sequoyah (1770-1843), inventor of the Cherokee syllabary, the first written language of the Native Americans of North America. Ill.: Charles Bird King
Giant sequoia in the Mariposa Grove of Yosemite National Park.
“Grizzly Giant” is a specimen from the Mariposa Grove in Yosemite National Park. Photo: Mike Murphy, Wikimedia Commons

The giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum), also called the giant redwood and Sierra redwood, also Wellingtonia in Great Britain, is the world’s most massive individual tree. In habitat, it grows to an average height of 164–279 ft (50–85 m) with trunk diameters ranging from 20–26 ft (6–8 m). It is therefore not at tall as the coast or coastal redwood (Sequoia sempervirens), a related Californian species that is the world’s tallest tree and reaches up to 379 ft (115.5 m) in height.

Comparison between the shapes and sizes of dawn redwood, giant sequoia and
Ill.: nps.gov

Both trees, plus the dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) are the last living members of the Sequoioideae, a subfamily of coniferous trees within the family Cupressaceae, once found all over the world. In fact, the giant sequoia itself was found throughout North America and Eurasia until the last ice age greatly reduced its range. Older fossils that are possibly giant sequoias have been found in Cretaceous era sediments as far afield as Australia and New Zealand.

Needles of giant sequoia
Foliage of the giant sequoia is evergreen and dark green to blue-green. Photo: bugwood.org

The giant sequoia is also considered the world’s second-oldest individual tree, with several over 3,000 years old. Only the Great Basin bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva) has older specimens, with one, called Methusalem, estimated to be 4,852 years old.

Cones of giant sequoia
The tree may be a giant, but its cones are small (only 1 12–3 in/4-7 cm) long and its seeds are tiny (0.16–0.20 in/4-5 mm). Photo: Tara Costanzo

The species is highly adapted to fire, with tremendously thick, fire-resistant bark and cones that open after a blaze. It only seems to be able to regenerate naturally after fire has burned off the duff that has accumulated on the forest floor, exposing sprouting seedlings to the sun necessary for their development.

A giant sequoia at the Eikenhorst Estate, Boxtel, The Netherlands. Photo: Chef2, Wikimedia Commons

Giant sequoia is a popular park and urban tree in appropriate moderate temperate climates throughout the world, from southwest British Columbia and the Western US (as described above) to Chile, New Zealand and Australia. I’ve seen them all over Europe, from England to France, Germany, Spain and beyond. In most of those climates, it grows quite quickly and specimens can reach nearly 200 feet (60 meters) tall in about 150 years or so.

Giant sequoia at Blithewold Gardens in Rhode Island. Photo: tripadvisor.com

In Eastern North America, apparently hampered by hot, dry summers, it is slower growing, but prime specimens of about the same age (150 years), but half that height (about 100 feet/30 meters) can be seen there in many parks, gardens and arboretums, including one huge specimen I’ve seen in Blithewold Gardens, Bristol, Rhode Island. 

And no, I couldn’t grow a giant sequoia myself, living as I do in much too cold a climate (Quebec City, USDA zone 3b, AgCanada zone 4b), but that doesn’t stop me from admiring it!


The giant sequoia: truly a majestic tree and one well worth naming as the SMA Urban Tree of the Year 2021!

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He has written for many garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 60 other titles in English and French. He is a past president of the Garden Writers Association (now Garden Communicators International) and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. He resides in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.

2 comments on “SMA Urban Tree of the Year 2021: The Giant Sequoia  

  1. Seeing giant sequoias in on my bucket list of things to see. I’d love to plant one myself but as my yard is about half the size of their eventual girth I suspect it will have to wait until I win the lottery.

  2. What an odd choice. It is not a particular pretty tree. The foliar debris is annoyingly prickly, sort of like Eastern red cedar. The coastal redwood is much more common in landscapes here, and performs much better. Giant redwood does not like coastal climates, and for some reason, does not do well in the Santa Clara Valley or Los Angeles region either. I do not know why. It performs better in the Pacific Northwest, much farther from its natural range, than it does here. Actually, it is more adaptable to more ‘other’ climates than the coastal redwood is, even though the coastal redwood has a larger natural range, and grows like a weed here. The coastal redwood, although native to within a few miles of chaparral climates, dislikes chaparral and desert climates, and does not tolerate snow or hard frost.
    All three redwoods live in the landscapes at work. The coastal redwood is, of course, native. A dawn redwood was added to one of the landscapes many decades ago. A giant redwood was added only a few decades ago, perhaps only twenty years ago or so. The dawn redwood is not pretty compared to the coastal redwood. It is very tall with disfigured branches. It looks like a very unhappy coastal redwood that dies annually. It is an interesting oddity though. The giant redwood is still symmetrical and somewhat pretty, but may not stay that way for long, since it lives in a dark and damp part of the landscape, next to a creek, right across from the dawn redwood and surrounded by coastal redwoods. A plaque nearby describes all three species. We will eventually add more dawn redwoods and giant redwoods, but in more appropriate situations.

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