View towards the top of giant sequoia trees in a forest

Giant sequoias, Sequoiadendron giganteum, are awe-inspiring. These giant redwood trees tower above us and are among the world's largest and oldest living things. © Lucky-photographer/ Shutterstock

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The giant sequoia, Sequoiadendron giganteum: the biggest tree in the world

In her book, In the Name of Plants, our botanist Sandra Knapp reveals the stories of remarkable plants and the extraordinary people behind their names.

This extract explores the giant redwood trees of California, which reach astounding sizes, and their equally impressive namesake, the Native American Sequoyah, a member of the Cherokee Nation.

Sequoiadendron facts

  • Plant family: Cupressaceae, the cypress family
  • Number of species: one, Sequoiadendron giganteum
  • Distribution: California

Where are the giant redwoods?

The 'Big Trees' of the Sierra Nevada range in California are among the world's largest and oldest living things. Reaching to 94 metres (more than 300 feet) tall and with diameters of up to eight metres (26 feet) or a bit more, these trees cannot fail to impress anyone who sees them.

Individual trees have been dated to more than 3,000 years old, and for many years cars were allowed to drive through a tunnel in the Wawona Tree in Yosemite National Park. 

A car driving through a tunnel cut into a huge tree trunk

The Wawona Tree photographed in 1962, seven years before it fell due to heavy snow. This famous giant sequoia stood in the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees in Yosemite National Park, California. A tunnel was cut into it as a tourist attraction in 1881. © Rob Ketcherside (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) via Flickr

Standing in a grove of Sequoiadendron, surrounded by giants, is an almost mystical experience. Imagine how the frontier scouts led by Joseph Walker, charged with finding an overland route to California over the high Sierra in the early 1830s, must have felt when they crossed the forests where these giants grow.

Choosing a name worthy of the world's biggest trees

It was not until 1853 that enough material reached British botanists for them to describe the trees botanically. It was collected by Royal Horticultural Society collector William Lobb, who said, 'This magnificent evergreen tree, from its extraordinary height and large dimensions, may be termed the monarch of the Californian forest.'

John Lindley, who reported on Lobb's 'discovery', marvelled enthusiastically, 'What tree is this! --- of what portentous aspect and almost fabulous antiquity!'

A man gazes up at a tree in a forest, all we can see is the base of the huge trunk

The General Sherman tree in Sequoia National Park, California, is the biggest tree in the world alive today, by volume. This massive redwood tree is more than 83m tall and 7.7m in diameter. Estimated to have a volume of more than 1,485m3, its trunk would fill nearly 60% of an Olympic-size swimming pool. © Nick Fox/ Shutterstock

Then began the confusion over what to call this marvellous new find.

Lindley, in an outrush of patriotic fervour, decided to name the tree Wellingtonia, after the British naval hero and previous Prime Minster Arthur Wellesley, First Duke of Wellington, who had died the year before:

'... we think that no one will differ from us in feeling that the most appropriate name to be proposed for this most gigantic tree which has been revealed to us by modern discovery is that of the greatest of modern heroes.'
'Wellington stands as high above his contemporaries as the Californian tree stands above all the surrounding foresters. Let it then bear henceforward the name of Wellingtonia gigantea. Emperors and kings and princes have their plants, and we must not forget to place in the highest rank among them our own great warrior.'
An illustration of a group of frontier scouts or soldiers at the base of a giant redwood tree in Mariposa Grove

The Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias in today's Yosemite National Park in the Sierra Nevada was first set aside for 'public use, resort and recreation' by President Abraham Lincoln in 1864. The name for the trees wasn't settled until much later.

Sadly for Lindley, the name Wellingtonia had already been used several years before for a plant from Asia in the flowering plant family Sabiaceae, so the name was already what we call occupied, and not available for use.

Wellingtonia is now considered a synonym of another genus, Meliosma, as botanists feel it represents the same biological entity. Even so, Wellingtonia still cannot be used if we follow the rules of botanical naming.

American botanists suggested the genus be named Washingtonia, to honor George Washington, a hero of the American army during the Revolutionary War. But they never quite got around to naming the genus and instead the name was used for a genus of palms.

The giant redwoods were then popped in and out of various genera, sometimes with, sometimes without their close relatives, the coast redwoods.

View of a huge tree in a forest, looking up from the base of the trunk towards the sky - the trunk looks triangular from this angle

View from the base of the coast redwood known as Hyperion, which is thought to be the tallest tree in the world at nearly 116 metres in height. It's in California's Redwood National Park. Scientists now recognise coast redwoods and giant redwoods as different species. © Stephen Moehle/ Shutterstock

Separating the giant and coast redwoods

By the 1930s it was clear that the two redwoods were sufficiently distinct to warrant being recognised as separate genera. But there was no scientific name for the Big Trees - the coast redwoods had a name, Sequoia sempervirens, but the magnificent trees of the Sierra Nevada couldn't be called Sequoia, they were just too different.

Both redwoods were superlative - one the tallest tree in the world and one the largest, but they had different trunk, branch and leaf shapes, and more importantly for botanists, distinct cone forms and seed maturation needs.

Aerial view of two herbarium sheets, side-by-side, showing tree leaves, cones and specimen labels that state the species name, who collected the specimen and where

Botanists record plant diversity with herbarium specimens - including the difference between the cones of Sequoiadendron giganteum and Sequoia sempervirens, shown here. But the sheer size and magnificence of these trees are impossible to capture in two dimensions.

So, what to call the genus that comprised the Big Trees? The American botanist and conifer specialist John Theodore Buchholz made the practical decision that decided the question:

'In the selection of an appropriate name for the Big Tree, it is very desirable that no word be selected which is wholly foreign to the names long in use.'
'The name Sequoiadendron, which provides adequately for generic distinction, does not wholly discard the long-established name, Sequoia, and has obvious advantages in catalogues and indices.'

So, names can be practical as well as poetic or sycophantic. The name wellingtonia lives on for these trees, though, as the common name for the many individuals cultivated in Britain. In cultivation these trees do not grow as large as those in their home forests of California, but their large stature and beautiful foliage make them much-loved far from home.

The name for the genus Sequoiadendron combines the generic name for the coast redwood, Sequoia, with the Greek word for tree, so linking these two Californian trees. The derivation of the name for the Big Trees is therefore obvious, Buchholz made sure of that in his description. But the derivation of the name Sequoia is less clear.

A grove of giant sequoias in the USA, with a particularly large, ridged tree trunk in the foreground

In their natural forest habitat in the USA, Sequoiadendron giganteum trees grow far larger than they do in Britain. In the UK they're usually known by the common name wellingtonia rather than giant sequoia. © Sundry Photograph/ Shutterstock

What is the origin of the name Sequoia?

The genus name Sequoia was coined in the mid-1840s by an Austrian botanist Stephan Endlicher. He thought that the plants called Taxodium sempervirens were distinct enough from Taxodium to be made into a new genus. He gave no reasons for his choice of name, as was common at the time.

In the 1860s, a guidebook to the region of Yosemite popularised the idea that Endlicher had intended to honour a man named Sequoyah.

Who was Sequoyah?

Sequoyah was an extraordinary Native American who invented the Cherokee syllabary in the early 1800s. He was also known by the English name of George Guest or Gist.

A portrait of Sequoyah holding a tablet covered in symbols - the syllabary that he developed

Sequoyah, born around 1770, invented the Cherokee written language. This massive achievement went on to facilitate communications between the forcibly dispersed Cherokee Nation. Sequoyah died in 1843 while working to reunite Cherokee people who had fled persecution. Image: Hand-coloured lithograph by the JT Bowen Lithography company, 1837. Source: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution (CC0).

Sequoyah was born in the homelands of the Cherokee Nation - the Carolinas, Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama - in the late 1700s. His mother raised him in the strongly matrilineal Cherokee tradition.

He was monolingual, speaking only Cherokee, an intricate polysynthetic language where single words express complex ideas that would require many words to express in European languages.

As a young man Sequoyah was what one might term a jack-of-all-trades - he was a trader, silversmith, blacksmith and soldier. In his dealings with people of European descent he realised that these settlers had an advantage with their communication via a written language, which they used to pass information to each other, not relying totally on memory.

Developing a new written Cherokee language

Sequoyah began to develop a plan for a written language for his people, beginning with trying to create a character for every word - but that was too complicated and difficult.

As a trader Sequoyah was able to speak to many people and listen to many conversations. In so doing he analysed the sounds of the language and developed a system where each syllable had a character.

He used and adapted some letters of the English alphabet because they were simple to draw, but in the syllabary they had no relation to their use in English. Sequoyah also developed some new characters of his own.

The syllabary was tailored to the sounds unique to the Cherokee language. Its 85 characters represented the full spectrum of sounds used to speak Cherokee, one for each syllable. The syllabary was not an imposition of the English alphabet and sounds into the language, it was unique and independent, entirely new.

Part of the portrait of Sequoyah, showing the syllabary he developed in more detail

Close-up of a tablet showing part of the Cherokee syllabary developed by Sequoyah. The syllabary is not an alphabet but is a set of 85 symbols - one for each syllable in the language. Image: Detail from a hand-coloured lithograph by the JT Bowen Lithography company, 1837. Source: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution (CC0).

The idea of an indigenous people independently developing a written language was welcome by some. Others, particularly missionaries, found it problematic. Firstly, because it had been invented by an indigenous person, and secondly because indigenous leaders used this new written language to record and communicate traditional religious practices.

Among the Cherokee people the written language was initially viewed with some suspicion. Sequoyah had taught his daughter Ahyoka, and they were accused of witchcraft and put on trial. Men from a northern part of the Cherokee Nation were brought in to try them.

Sequoyah and Ahyoka's ability to communicate through passing written messages convinced the men that this invention had value. The story has it that these fierce warriors asked to be taught the system and released the prisoners.

The huge impact of Sequoyah's Cherokee syllabary

In 1825 the syllabary was adopted by the Cherokee Nation and it became widely used extremely rapidly. By 1830 literacy rates among the Cherokee peoples were higher than among European settlers.

The syllabary facilitated communications between the dispersed Cherokee Nation, who had been forced off their traditional lands by President Andrew Jackson's 'Indian Removal Act' of 1830.

Ceding their traditional lands to the east of the Mississippi River to the United States, the Cherokee people were rounded up by the military in the summer of 1838. They were moved to the current capital of the Cherokee Nation in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, but not without cost. Of the 16,000 people who walked the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma some 4,000 died of exposure, starvation, or disease.

Following the re-establishment of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, Sequoyah began to contact dispersed bands of Cherokee people who had fled to Mexico so they could be brought back together with those who remained. He died while doing this and is buried in an unmarked grave. His syllabary lives on, however, and is still in use today.

Truth or myth, it's a fitting tribute

The idea that Endlicher coined the name Sequoia in honour of this extraordinary man comes from his reputation as a linguist and keen admirer of indigenous North American cultures.

Endlicher was a fluent speaker of Chinese and many other languages. He certainly knew of Sequoyah, whose story appeared in many German language newspapers of the time, and he collaborated with Steven Peter Du Ponceau, whose work on indigenous American languages included the Cherokee syllabary. 

A black and white portrait of Stephan Endlicher

The name Sequoia - given to the coast redwoods and from which Sequoiadendron is derived - was conceived by the Austrian botanist Stephan Endlicher. He didn't state his inspiration but the most plausible explanation is that the name honoured Sequoyah. Image: Lithograph by Joseph Kriehuber, 1848, via Wikimedia Commons.

But Endlicher didn't say anything about the derivation of the name Sequoia. In 2012 it was suggested that it was 'an American myth' that the name was in honour of Sequoyah and was instead a derivation of the Latin verb 'sequor', meaning I follow.

The reasoning was either that Sequoia followed genera that had gone extinct or came in a sequence of genera distinguished by the number of seeds in each cone scale.

Subsequent readings of Endlicher's papers have not really solved the mystery but made the derivation from 'sequor' less likely. For a start it would be improper use of Latin, something extremely unlikely for a linguist like Endlicher.

No one has yet uncovered hard evidence as to Endlicher's intentions, but it is very right and fitting that two of the most magnificent American conifers, Sequoia and Sequoiadendron, honour the inventor of the written syllabary for Cherokee, a hugely important accomplishment that inspired others all over the world to do the same.

Giant sequoia trees, including a particularly large one known as General Sherman

Magnificent giant redwoods, including the General Sherman tree, in Sequoia National Park. © Simon Dannhauer/Shutterstock

Endangered: redwood trees and the Cherokee language

Today, Cherokee is considered a language at risk with only about 2,000 speakers recorded in 2019. But programmes for learning the Cherokee language are vibrant and evolving.

The redwoods too are facing risks in their native habitats. Both have declining populations and are considered endangered on the IUCN Red List.

The increased incidence and ferocity of fires in the western United States means even forests of Sequoiadendron that are adapted for fire - with cones that even require fire to open and release their seeds - can be permanently damaged beyond repair.

In the Castle Fire of 2020 in the Sierra Nevada more than 10% of Sequoiadendron left in the world - some 7,500 to 10,000 trees - were destroyed. A combination of previous policies of fire suppression coupled with hotter and longer dry periods due to climate change means these trees are at the mercy of the heat and ferocity of today's wildfires.

Forest trees showing charred trunks with chunks missing

Wildfire-scarred giant sequoia tree trunks. Despite their immense size and age, Sequoiadendron giganteum trees are at risk from fires that are hotter and more frequent with climate change. Individual trees sometimes have be protected with fire blankets, such as in the devastating 2021 California wildfires. © Kyle Krakow/ Shutterstock

Whatever the derivation of their names, the magnificent redwoods of California, both Sequoia and Sequoiadendron, are reminders of the indigenous peoples of the Americas whose lives were so altered by European settlement and of Sequoyah's unique and lasting contribution to world knowledge.

We can only hope these trees persist into the future despite the changing climate humans have so profoundly altered through our own unsustainable actions.