HomeBlogScience & natureThe California tree awards: Biggest, oldest and tallest

The California tree awards: Biggest, oldest and tallest

Trees are pretty useful. Animals live in them, they provide food and shelter, they’re nice to look at and (perhaps most importantly) without them we’d all be completely dead (and then who’d need travel insurance?). The trees were here before us and they’ll still be here when we’ve gone, so we might as well try to enjoy them. Take a moment to think about all the wonderful things trees do for us – maybe a moment next time you’re miserably raking leaves from your lawn.

Of course every tree is important but, as with all things in life, some trees are simply better than others. And, perhaps anticipating that it would become a magnet for superstars of human society, the superstars of the tree world have also gathered in California. Here we take a look at the very best trees in three categories – biggest, tallest, and oldest – all of which have chosen to root themselves in the golden state.


General Sherman

Giant by name, giant by nature – the biggest trees on Earth are giant sequoias and the biggest of them all is General Sherman. Found in the (imaginatively-named) Giant Forest area of California’s (imaginatively-named) Sequoia National Park, General Sherman isn’t the tallest tree or the widest; he’s just perfectly proportioned and a bit of a whopper.

General Sherman is named after an American Civil War leader. This doesn’t seem right – General Sherman (the huge tree) is 2,300-2,700 years old but General Sherman (the normal sized man) was only born in 1820, so surely it should’ve been the other way round… It seems rather unfair that trees get named after people all the time, but people are never named after trees (except perhaps Woody Allen).

When General Sherman’s largest branch fell off, and nobody was around to hear it, did it make a sound? Probably – it was absolutely massive. Whereas you or I would be terribly upset to lose our biggest limb, General Sherman didn’t seem bothered by it – tree size is measured by trunk volume so, with an estimated 1,487 m3 of wood, the General remains number one.


Bristlecone pine

The world’s longest living tree was, until the recent discovery of an even older specimen, a 4,845-year-old Great Basin bristlecone pine called Methuselah. There’s probably a joke to be made here about “the oldest Meth-user(-lah) in California”, but I’m not sure it’d be appropriate. The newly discovered old age pine is yet to be named, but is known to be at least 5,063 years old (and has got the rings to prove it).

There was a tree even older than Methuselah, another Great Basin bristlecone pine named Prometheus, which estimates suggest may have been over 5,000 years old when cut down by mistake in 1964. A graduate student named Donald Rusk Currey was using tree rings to study the climate and, when his drill broke in Prometheus, he chopped down the tree and took it away. These things happen, I suppose, but as accidents go killing the oldest living organism on the planet is a pretty big one. Donald Rusk Currey is rightly viewed as a bit of a wally, but there’s a lesson here for all of us: never give a chainsaw to a man whose middle name is a type of baby biscuit.


Coast redwoods

As with the biggest and the oldest, the world’s tallest trees are also found among the arboreal A-listers of California. Coast redwoods regularly grow to over 100 metres, with the tops only accessible to birds, small mammals and David Attenborough in a special rope harness.

Of all the coast redwoods, the tallest is one named Hyperion. This lanky individual somehow remained hidden until 2006, when it was discovered and measured at a record-breaking 115 metres. Woodpecker damage at the top prevented Hyperion from being even taller but, at just 700-800 years old, the tree is a relative youngster with plenty of growing years ahead of it.
Photo credits: EditorASC, Jim Bahn, Oke, Acroterion and WolfmanSF