Imagine the most perfect tree on Earth: one that outdoes all others in magnificence, size, height, productivity, habitat, architecture and ability to draw thousands of gallons of water. Imagine, too, it is marvelously resistant to drought, fire, insects, disease, mudslides, flooding and wind, with exquisite biodiversity in its crown. Then, and only then, as John Muir put it, "you'd know the coastal monarch of their race"—the immortal Sequoia sempervirens, otherwise known as the coastal redwood.
Redwoods' direct lineage can be traced back 144 million years ago to the beginning of the Cretaceous Period. That's when Tyrannosaurus Rex was beginning to rule for 40 million years as no reptile nor animal has ever done since.
Redwoods are unique for many reasons. They are able to reproduce from both seed and organs, called lignotubers, located at the base of the tree just beneath the soil. No other conifer possesses this dual reproduction mechanism. It's a trait that is widespread among the more advanced race of trees, the broadleaves or angiosperms, some 80 million years after the redwoods were born.
The tallest living tree on planet Earth is a coastal redwood measured at 379.3 feet high, and still growing. That's twice the size of the Statue of Liberty, and the equivalent of a 38-story skyscraper. That tree was probably born when Jesus Christ walked the earth. It carries well over a billion needles—enough to cover one football field.
Redwoods store thousands of gallons of water, so in the summer months they never run dry. Consequently, they usually grow about 11 months of the year.
The wood doesn't contain gooey pitch like spruce, pine, fir and larch, so it doesn't burn easily. The fibrous foot-thick bark is an excellent insulator. In the northern range, fire frequencies are in the order of 700 to 800 years. The bark is high in tannic acid and the wood is full of essential oils, called terpenes, which make it rot resistant.
Though insects do infest redwoods, none can kill a mature tree by themselves.
Coastal redwoods have survived climate change, geologic upheavals and ice ages. Today they exist along a narrow strip of land 475 miles in length reaching from southwest Oregon to Big Sur, Calif.
Adapting to their environment enables redwoods to live for at least two thousand years, with abilities such as drawing water out of fog so they can continue to grow during summer dry periods. Sadly, climate change has reduced the number of summer fog days and the southern end of the range—the trees have begun to migrate, northward.
The real story occurs in the treetops, where redwoods can sprout a forest above a forest. Redwoods are capable of branch-to-branch, branch to trunk, and trunk-to-trunk fusions. Tree scientists think this is in response to mechanical damage and the insatiable ability to constantly seek more light in order to make more food.
These canopy-top grafts become sources to store and share water and nutrients and they stabilize the tree's crown during storms. The enormous treetops also promote biodiversity. For example, there are 500-year-old saturated fern mats the size of a large mini van, weighing over 500 pounds, all suspended 200 feet above the ground in redwood treetops.
Of 80,000 tree species on Earth, there seems little question Muir was correct—regal redwoods indeed rule the coast.
Earth Dr. Reese Halter is a broadcaster, biologist and author of "The Insatiable Bark Beetle."