Home & Garden Columns

Green Neighbors: What’s in a Name? History and Big Trees

By Ron Sullivan
Tuesday July 10, 2007

It isn’t always easy to keep a giant sequoia / Big Tree / Sequoiadendron giganteum thriving down here near sea level. (It isn’t always easy even to talk about the species without someone’s caviling about whatever common name is current.) I’ve known at least two that were cut down locally, and one that just doesn’t look happy. There’s a nice row of them along the main road through Tilden Park, though, just past the regional Parks Botanic Garden, for easy viewing as you pass. You can get up close and personal with the species in the Bot Garden too, and reassure yourself about identification—they’re labeled—and compare them with coast redwood, Sequoia sempervirens.  

Keeping even mighty things alive in a hostile climate is often a matter of failing and maybe trying again. Certainly the bloom of American utopias of many sorts over the 19th and early 20th centuries has faded, maybe to seed, maybe just to footnotes after a brief flush of possibility.  

Sometimes even their marks have been willfully erased. How many of us knew that the biggest tree in the world used to be called the Karl Marx Tree? 

The Kaweah Colony, a socialist community founded in 1884, laid out a number of timber claims near their planned headquarters in the Three Rivers area. Because most members lived at the time in San Francisco (with others in associated clubs as far away as Boston), some alert officials thought they smelled fraud of the sort that timber corporations had perpetrated using individuals as fronts for homesteading claims and public land use.  

The claims, supposed to be the foundation of Kaweah’s prosperity, were held up pending investigation. The colony foundered within half a decade, partly on economics and bad planning, partly on the rock of government (and corporate-interest) hostility.  

The land claims finally fizzled when the Sequoiadendron groves became Sequoia (speaking of misnomers) National Park and the surrounding forest became national forest lands. The Feds never made any restitution to the claimants, though a Congressional investigation recommended it.  

Karl Marx’s tree got the name that stuck, “General Sherman,” in 1879, by some accounts as part of an attempt to “heal the nation’s wounds” after the Civil War; a great many of the trees in the park were named then after prominent military figures. Naming the biggest after the total-war practitioner Sherman rather than, say, Lincoln or even Grant (who do have barely-smaller trees named for them in the park) might seem rather abrasive for that purpose.  

Naturalist Asa Gray had seen the big trees in that decade, and had doubts about this sort of naming: “Whether it be the man or the tree that is honored in the connection, probably either would live as long, in fame and in memory, without it.” 

Certainly the trees don’t care. 


Photograph: Ron Sullivan  

Even a little Big Tree is a big tree. Broader spread, stouter trunk, more massive foliage, needles in rounded thready clusters, not flat sprays like coastal redwoods’.  


Ron Sullivan is a former professional gardener and arborist. Her “Green Neighbors” column appears every other Tuesday in the Berkeley Daily Planet, alternating with Joe Eaton’s “Wild Neighbors” column. Her “Garden Variety” column appears every Friday in the Planet’s East Bay Home & Real Estate section.