Election Section

Redwoods, Our Natural Christmas Trees in the City By RON SULLIVAN

Special to the Planet
Tuesday December 14, 2004

There are only a few official redwoods, Sequoia sempervirens, on Berkeley’s streets, but many people have planted them in yards and gardens, and there are still a few within city limits in the hills, trees that we can fancy grew there on their own. They aren’t a patch on what we used to have. Over a century ago there were redwoods in the hills big enough to be seen from ships at sea many miles away, and used as navigation markers, beckoning ships to San Francisco Bay. 

Eucalyptus have replaced many of those redwoods, though we do have some respectable second-growth stands in the regional parks. The original trees ended up as San Francisco’s Victorians, and ours too. We live in a duplex that was once a Victorian of sorts; it underwent an complete characterectomy when it was raised to two stories, but a photo of earlier owners posing in front of their cottage turned up in the attic. And when some bits of wall were cut out for switchplates, we got a look at the original structural timber: redwood with such close, tight grain it looked like fingerprints. 

Such grain and the strength it implies signify old-growth redwood. Yes, trees like media star Luna went into some of the modest, unlandmarkish elder buildings in the Bay Area. In a way, it’s embarrassing. One would like to think we’ve learned some modesty in the last century, but it’s market forces (along with financial sleight-of-hand) that are driving the last old-growth remnants toward oblivion. 

Redwood lumber is handsome and, especially when it’s a product of slow growing, bug- and rot-resistant, so it’s sought after for building and outdoor uses. Because of its rich ruddy color, it’s also used for interiors. (I’m a bit bitter that ours has been painted over so many times that the paint layer is visibly three-dimensional; stripping it would be a Herculean job.) 

Fortunately, there are places that sell salvaged lumber, so we can have redwood stuff with a clear conscience instead of a clear-cut. Good thing; the tree is worth more alive than dead, if you take a whole ecosystem into account. 

The coastal redwood forest here, once stretching from south as far as Big Basin (where a relict still stands) to well up the coast, evolved interesting and rare adaptations to its site and fostered unique flora and fauna. Among its hat tricks are the ability to sieve fog for enough moisture to thrive through long rainless summers, thick, fire-resistant bark, and wide-ranging roots that can intertwine with each other and, unusually among trees, can withstand being covered with more layers of soil after they’re mature. Most trees tend to smother under such conditions, but redwoods apparently figure out how to endure and enjoy the silt dropped by repeated flooding. 

Intact redwood forests have a cathedral stillness that belies their lively polity. They shelter birds like spotted owl, varied thrush (here for the winter—look twice at every robin!) with its melancholy whistle, and the oddball “foglark,” the marbled murrelet, a seabird that nests on moss-upholstered limbs miles inland. Red tree voles, relatives of the mousy critters in fields, live almost entirely up in the treetops, dining on those unpromising needles. Others from flying squirrels to Roosevelt elk to banana slugs share the remnant forests. 

Redwoods mix with other big trees like Douglas fir and smaller species from madrone to rhododendron, and shelter understory plants: lush ferns, trilliums, huckleberry and salal, clintonia and calypso orchid. Walk through the Tilden Botanic Garden’s redwood patch in spring, for a taste. 

Redwood itself is a remnant of a formerly mixed warm-wet climate forest including other sequoia species, ginkgo, bald cypress, sassafrass, and hickory; when the climate swung toward our cooler half-drought, the other sequoias mostly went extinct, and the rest died back to remnant populations elsewhere. Sempervirens hung on to make a world of its own. 

In nurturing the coastal forests with the water it catches and showers on them, redwood is a real live Giving Tree. It’s the closest thing to a natural “Christmas” tree we have, with classic conical shape. It would be nice to think that, even in the city, there’s still room for them.›