“What can the redwoods tell us about ourselves? Well, I think they can tell us something about human time. The flickering, transitory quality of human time and the brevity of human life – the necessity to love,” writes Richard Preston. The famous author’s opinion is shared by many people – that understanding how redwoods grow, survive and thrive teaches many important lessons for modern man.

The Birth of a Redwood

Ironically, a giant redwood tree begins from a tiny seed only 3 millimeters in length. The seeds are produced by cones that grow on the tree’s branches. Redwood trees develop both male and female and male cones. The cones act as “incubators” for the seeds of the tree. The smaller male cones release pollen, which fertilizes the female cones’ ovula. After this pollen release, male cones are shed by the tree and drop to the forest floor. The pollinated female cones remain attached to the branches and begin to grow. Some varieties may reach almost 24 inches in length.

As the female cone grows, the seeds develop inside it. When the seeds reach maturity, the segments of the cone open up and release the seeds. As the seed falls to the ground, it floats along air currents due to its wing-like shape. It lands a few hundred feet from its parent and takes root. While a single tree may produce 100,000 seeds each year, only a few of those actually make it into the soil and grow into a tree.

The Growth of a Redwood

The redwood tree can grow from two to three feet in height each year, reaching over 100 feet by its 50th birthday. It can eventually be over 300 feet tall and 22 feet wide at the base. The largest redwood is in California’s Humboldt Redwoods State Park that stands 378.1 feet tall. A redwood reaches its giant size due to several factors.

First, redwood trees grow in the perfect climate. The climate of coastal California and Oregon creates the ideal environment for the trees. A redwood tree needs massive amounts of water to grow large. A 1998 study found that a redwood uses more than 150 gallons of water each day. This moderate and humid climate provides the massive amounts of water that a redwood needs. Abundant rainfall is created by the nearby ocean, with as much as 122 inches of precipitation each year. Also, as the cool moist breeze blows inland, fog forms almost daily over the redwood forests. This fog provides up to 40% of a redwood tree’s moisture needs.

Second, redwoods have a strong “immune system.” Most trees have two main threats to their longevity: insects and fire. However, the redwood is naturally protected from both these enemies for a few reasons. The high concentration of the chemical tannin in the redwood helps to make it pest resistant. Also, the bark of redwood trees also protects it from the effects of fire. The outer covering of the redwood is soft and stringy and can be up to 24 inches in thickness on adult trees. It is also very fire-resistant. For this reason, shredded redwood bark was once used as insulation in buildings.

Third, redwoods are able to withstand storms. If a tree avoids destruction by insects or fire, it is often brought down by high winds. The redwood tree has proven to be very wind-resistant. This is because it develops a strong root system. Though the roots of a redwood are not very deep relative to its height, they are very extensive. A single tree can have root system over 1000 feet in length and be interconnected with six to eight other adult trees in a 131 to 196 feet area. This connection provides great strength against stormy weather.

“The redwoods, once seen, leave a mark or create a vision that stays with you always,” wrote John Steinbeck. The famous novelist expressed the universal fascination of these giant trees, which research continues to fuel. A better understanding of how redwoods grow provides an enduring benefit to modern mankind.

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