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What does Rossie Priory, David Douglas and the Santa Cruz Forests in California have in common?

Updated: Jan 7, 2019


THE STORY OF THE COAST REDWOOD by PEGGY EDWARDS

Although known by Native American for millennia, the first European to describe the coast redwood found within the fog belt of the Pacific coast, was the Franciscan missionary Fray Juan Crespi in his 1769 diaries of the Portolá Expedition near Monterey Bay. In 1791, the Czech botanists Thaddeus Haenke and Luis Nee of the Malaspina Expedition collected seeds which became the first redwoods planted in Europe near Granada, Spain.


In 1795, Archibald Menzies on the Vancouver Expedition brought additional specimens from back to England which were used by the English botanist Aylmer Bourke Lambert in 1824 to name the coast redwood Taxodium sepervirens, in recognition of its morphological similarities to bald cypress. Later in 1847 Stephen Endlicher changed the genus name to Sequoia, a name with a debated origin.


For decades no one knew where Menzies had collected his specimens that were housed at the British Natural History Museum in London, until California's most distinguished early botanist, professor, writer, and conservationist, Willis Linn Jepson, solved the mystery. He wrote in Sequoia sepervirens and Gigantea,1910, “No exact locality has ever been given for the Menzies collection, but while examining Menzies’ original specimen at the British Natural History Museum in London I turned over the sheet and discovered written on the back ‘Santa Cruz, Menzies.’


The botanical explorer and collector for the Royal Horticultural Society, David Douglas, referred it to the same genus as Lambert: travelling through the Santa Cruz forests in 1830, he wrote to Dr. Hooker in England that “the great beauty of California vegetation is a species of Taxodium, which gives the mountains a most peculiar, I was almost going to say awful appearance – something that plainly tells that we are not in Europe.” It was not until 1847 that Endlicher founded the distinct genus Sequoia and created the binomial Sequoia sepervirens.”

Coastal Redwood. Photo by Greendiary.com

Sequoia sepervirens were brought to Russia in 1840, and from there to Britain in 1843. Theodore Hartweg, a collector for the Horticultural Society of London introduced seeds to Britain in 1846. The oldest two coast redwood trees in Britain are at Rossie Priory in Perthshire, and at Smeaton House, East Lothian and planted in 1845 and about 1844 respectively. 



The tallest and widest Coast redwood in Scotland is located at Benmore Gardens and measured 42.6m tall and 5.57m in girth in 2009. Coast redwoods are the tallest organisms on Earth, the tallest, Hyperion,  located in Northern California is 115.92m tall.  If allowed to grow the trees planted in Scotland may reach 300' or more in height given 2000+ years!


Peggy Edwards is a botanical illustrator and redwood aficionado. She has a BSc from the University of California and a Graduate Certificate Natural Science Illustration from the University of California, Santa Cruz. She has been a field Botanist, Naturalist and K-12 Teacher.


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