Matthew Battles wraps his mind (and arms) around a would-be giant.

It isn’t the biggest tree at the Arnold. Let’s set that idea aside right away. This plant, which bears the accession number 1320-72*A, is one of seven specimens of Sequoiadendron giganteum (giant sequoia) alive in the landscape, a mix of wild-collected plants and ornamental cultivars. This is one of the wild-born; more than 25 meters in height, it is also the tallest. And yet other trees of impressive size stand nearby: Norway and Oriental spruces loom alongside; a neighboring multi-stemmed Metasequoia vies with it for height. Still, something about the tree says magnitude. It’s there in the genes, sure—the oldest giant sequoias are the most massive trees on Earth. While this specimen is comparatively small, its thick, ropy bark and radiating fretwork of shaggy limbs convey size as platonic ideal. Walk up to the tree, give it a knock with your knuckles: the sound is resonant, deep-rooted, the trunk a living marimba ringing with the sound of bigness borne in the bones of the tree down to the heartwood.

Called Wawona by the Miwok people, Sequoiadendron giganteum was unknown to Europeans until the 1850s; the specieswould barely survive its so-called discovery. In 1854, a crewstripped one tree of its bark to a height of 100 feet and sent thehollow husk out on exhibit around the world; the tree itself wasleft to die in place. “Such was its vitality,” wrote Harper’s Weekly in 1858, that it “put forth green leaves until the past year, when itsblanched and withered limbs showed that nature was exhausted.”Soon, there was a rush to carve up the big trees for novelty’ssake. Hotels were erected amid the wrecked groves, and touristssquare-danced atop stumps bearing millennia of rings.

Once widespread throughout Eurasia and North America, Sequoiadendron retreated to its current range at the end of the last ice age, clustering in mixed groves on the slopes of the western Sierra Nevada. Despite widespread ornamental planting and afforestation efforts in California, the big trees are not reproducing fast enough to replace the population in a range that will shrink ever higher into the hills as global warming advances. What kind of future can our big tree expect? With bigness in its bones and longevity in its genes, 1320-72*A is one of the few trees on the landscape that could outlast our thousand-year lease.

Matthew Battles is the editor of Arnoldia and the author of Tree (Bloomsbury 2017), among other books.

From “free” to “friend”…

Established in 1911 as the Bulletin of Popular Information, Arnoldia has long been a definitive forum for conversations about temperate woody plants and their landscapes. In 2022, we rolled out a new vision for the magazine as a vigorous forum for tales of plant exploration, behind-the-scenes glimpses of botanical research, and deep dives into the history of gardens, landscapes, and science. The new Arnoldia includes poetry, visual art, and literary essays, following the human imagination wherever it entangles with trees.

It takes resources to gather and nurture these new voices, and we depend on the support of our member-subscribers to make it possible. But membership means more: by becoming a member of the Arnold Arboretum, you help to keep our collection vibrant and our research and educational mission active. Through the pages of Arnoldia, you can take part in the life of this free-to-all landscape whether you live next door or an ocean away.

For more tree-entangled art, science, and writing, subscribe to Arnoldia by becoming a member of the Arnold Arboretum.