by John Hughes

Three species of Sequoia are to be seen In Dulwich. This article covers the two evergreen species: Giant Sequoia Sequoiadendron giganteum, and Coast Redwood Sequoia sempervirens. The third species, Dawn Redwood Metasequoia glyptostroboides, is deciduous and so will be considered in a future article on deciduous conifers. The genus is named in honour of Sequoayah (1770-1843), a native American polymath who created the Cherokee syllabary, making reading and writing in Cherokee possible.

Both Giant Sequoia and Coast Redwood originate from California, the former in a 300-mile band on the western Sierra Nevada at altitudes between 3,000 and 8,000 feet, the latter in a 500-mile coastal fog belt, just stretching into Oregon. Both are huge trees. Giant Sequoia is now the most massive tree known and one of the longest living (the oldest is estimated to be over 3,200 years old). Some historical Coast Redwoods were probably as massive as the largest Giant Sequoias but most of these ancient trees were destroyed for their wood, which is of exceptional quality. A native Coast Redwood is currently the world’s tallest tree and the species is also very long-lived: the oldest surviving specimen is estimated to be over 2,200 years old. Giant Sequoias have suffered less from the logging industry because its wood is brittle and has little strength. About 75 groves survive.

Old-growth trees of both species have massive, fluted, strongly buttressed trunks. The reddish bark of both species is particularly thick and spongy in the case of Giant Sequoia - thick enough to punch hard without damage to the knuckle. This makes it more resistant to fire damage, to which its habitat makes it more susceptible. One might expect that such giant trees would produce huge cones but in fact both trees produce small ovoid cones, brown in colour. Coast Redwoods produce two leaf types: most are needles held in two flat sprays, rather like those of Yew; but the leaves of new twigs and high branches are scalelike and held all around the branchlet, like those of Giant Sequoia.

Giant Sequoia was introduced to Britain in the mid-1850s and became immediately popular as a status tree in parks, estates, churchyards etc. Perhaps inevitably, given its imposing nature, it was named Wellingtonia, after the Iron Duke. Similarly, the largest specimen in the Sequoia National Park is called General Sherman. Rather oddly, given how frequently it has been planted in this country, there is no mature example to be seen in Dulwich, although there are several recently-planted examples. Perhaps the best of these is in Dulwich Park, to the south of the bridge leading from the lake to the ornamental garden. This is displaying a splendid disregard for the stake that supported it when young, see photograph top right.

Coast Redwoods were also introduced to Britain in the mid-19th century. There are several mature examples in Dulwich though even these are scarcely out of single figures in terms of the human lifespan. The best grouping is in Peckarmans Wood, from which the photographs of trunk and leaf below are taken.

A collection of both species is by the Paxton Green Health Centre. There are no fewer than three young Giant Sequoias on the green in front of the centre, one in poor condition; two more on the central island of the nearby roundabout, together with a multi-stemmed Coast Redwood. There is a further recently-planted Giant Sequoia at the bottom end of Long Meadow, facing the roundabout. Some thinning is likely to be needed in future if these trees are to be allowed to grow to anything like their adult size.