The Story of the Washington
|The Washington Tree was the 2nd largest tree in the world
|My friend Lin (MataHariHiker) at the base of the Washington Tree
|What's left of the Washington Tree after a fire and
winter storms took its toll
Truncated Sequoia Still Has Some Life in Limbs
World's second-biggest tree, the Washington, may be dying. But park officials aren't
By Nicholas Shields, Times Staff Writer
Los Angeles Times, February 21, 2005
The world's second-biggest tree, a sequoia known as the Washington Tree, has become
a fractured shadow of its former self.
But officials at Sequoia National Park say they don't know for sure if it is dying. The
tree, which is probably at least 2,500 years old, has lost more than half its 254-foot
height in a forest fire and recent winter storms and doesn't have many branches with
green growth left.
"We don't know if it's dying or not," said Bill Tweed, chief interpretive ranger at
Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks. "There still are those green branches â€”
those could keep the tree alive an unknown number of years â€” but it's not going to be
the same tree that it was."
Park officials said the tree, named after George Washington, will probably outlive its
human mourners. Some sequoias in worse shape have continued to live for centuries.
Media from around the world have inquired about the tree, which is now 115 feet tall.
But park officials want to dispel any notions of its imminent demise.
One group from Arizona was so concerned that it called park officials last week
offering to donate miracle tree food that they thought could help restore the sequoia's
health. Another caller asked for a piece of the tree as a souvenir to commemorate its
"It has been quite heartening for me to see how much people have cared," said
Alexandra Picavet, a spokeswoman for the parks.
"One branch with green leaves connected by live tissue to one root" is all that's needed
for a tree to be considered alive, Tweed said.
Finding the Washington Tree involves effort. It takes about an hour to drive the 17
miles of twisting road from the park's entrance to Giant Forest. A paved road leads to
the world's biggest tree by volume, the famed General Sherman, and from there it's a
1.5-mile hike through deep forest to the Washington Tree.
In its prime, the Washington stood more than 254 feet tall, with a base circumference
of more than 101 feet. But a lighting-induced fire toppled nearly 20 feet of the tree's
crown in 2003, and last month's winter storms reduced its height by another 120 feet.
The tree has shown increased signs of aging. A distinctive branch used to curl outward
into the shape of an arm flexing a muscle, but since the lightning fire, a massive chunk
of the sundered branch now lies about 20 feet from the tree's base.
It is also scarred with thick black vertical lines. Through a fire-induced opening at the
tree's base, sunlight and snowfall can be seen.
In 1999, researchers were allowed to study the tree and rappelled about halfway down
its hollow core.
Tony Caprio, a fire ecologist and dendrochronologist for the two parks, said the 2003
fire helped form the tree's hollow core. He said that before 2003, the last known fire
the tree experienced was in 1864.
Caprio said sequoia bark has evolved to become very fibrous. He said the trees have
many air pockets that create ideal insulation for surviving fires. He added that the
wood from a sequoia is not highly flammable and that their towering height can protect
the crown from catching fire.
Officials said the Washington Tree's exact age won't be known until death has
occurred and they can check for sure. "Sequoia time is so different from human time,"
said Jody Lyle, fire education specialist for the parks. "With the life spans of humans
and these trees â€” sometimes we want to imagine they are the same."
Tweed said the tree can die naturally in two main ways. The shallow root system for
most sequoias, only 5 to 10 feet underground, can give way, causing the tree to fall. He
said this is how about 90% of all Sequoias die. Or a fire can damage a tree so severely
that it dies. Tweed predicts the latter will happen to the Washington Tree.
The successor as the world's second-biggest tree may live in the neighborhood. The
267-foot-tall General Grant, in nearby Kings Canyon, could earn that designation â€” but
it might have to wait for centuries to pass.
A recent article on the Washington Tree...
A beloved giant bowed
Washington Tree a shell of its former self after standing tall for centuries.
By Tim Sheehan / The Fresno Bee
(Updated Monday, August 1, 2005, 6:05 AM)
SEQUOIA NATIONAL PARK -- On a summer afternoon, finding a parking spot is a
challenge near the General Sherman tree.
Paths near the famous sequoia in the Giant Forest are clogged by visitors from around
the world, oohing and ahhing in various accents and languages as they jockey for
positions to photograph the world's largest tree.
But about a mile and a half away by trail, all is quiet at the world's second-largest tree.
The Washington Tree, with a circumference of more than 100 feet at the base of its
trunk, sits a short distance off the Alta Trail in Sequoia National Park's Giant Forest
But the ancient behemoth that once stood 254 feet tall is a partially shattered
remnant of its former self.
In January, park rangers discovered that the tree -- named for George Washington and
estimated to be 2,500 to 3,200 years old, and perhaps as old as 4,200 years -- had
suffered a partial collapse of its hollow crown because of heavy winter snow and wind,
reducing its height to a mere 115 feet and leaving only a few sparse branches of live
It was the second catastrophic collapse of the tree's upper reaches in as many years.
In the fall of 2003, the Giant fire -- a lightning-sparked blaze that burned in the Giant
Forest -- damaged the tree, causing half of the shell around the hollow interior to peel
But after the latest collapse, with trails covered with winter snow, rangers had to wait
for months to make a thorough assessment of the tree's long-term prospects for
"It lost a substantial amount of its live foliage," said Tony Caprio, a fire ecologist for
the park. "On one side, the southwest side, there are maybe six small branches that are
As one of the most massive trees in the world, the Washington Tree has dominated its
perch near a granite knob for millennia, surviving countless winter snows, summer
droughts and wildfires. But having suffered so much damage in the past two years, can
it continue to endure?
"I think so," Caprio said. "These trees are pretty resilient. ... As you walk around, you
can see other trees with crown damage that are still alive."
Rangers say few park visitors venture away from the Sherman Tree and hike the trail
out to the Washington Tree.
At the tree's robust base, huge shards of cinnamon-colored wood lie in scattered
pieces, littering the forest floor for yards around like shrapnel.
Pieces measuring 25 to 30 feet long and yards thick show the scale of the winter's toll
on the giant.
Scars from ancient fires mark the side that was the hollow interior of the tree.
Nearby is a large piece of what was the Washington Tree's signature branch -- a thick
limb that used to reach skyward as if waving to visitors.
The hardiness of the giant sequoia, sequoiadendron giganteum, is evident in the survival
of lesser specimens that have faced considerable challenges during their lifetimes.
Throughout the Giant Forest are other sequoias with broken tops, caves burned into
their bases and other scars.
"There are a number of other trees that have gone through that stage, and the
branches left alive assume a more dominant role," Caprio said. "All of a sudden you see
these small branches begin turning upward."
Bill Tweed, the park's chief naturalist, said the Washington Tree and other sequoias
are designed by nature to be stout survivors.
"If you have a live root and a live branch and they're connected by live bark, it can go on
living," Tweed said. "Under those circumstances, it's a pretty reasonable thing to say
the tree will probably live for hundreds of years."
After a Bee story in February about the damage to the Washington Tree, news outlets
around the world repeated wire service reports that the tree was near death. Park
rangers say they received international reaction from people concerned about the
"What we saw is that people see the giant sequoia as an icon for nature and how we
relate to the world," Tweed said. "People see them as monuments to longevity and
endurance, unchanging. ... They are sacred."
"For some people, seeing a giant sequoia change is like changing the paint job of the
Sistine Chapel," he added.
Not only is the tree's health at issue, so is its status as the world's second-largest
At its former height of 254 feet, researchers had estimated the volume of the
Washington Tree at nearly 48,000 cubic feet, second only to the nearby General
Sherman Tree and ahead of the third-ranked General Grant Tree, a giant sequoia in the
Grant Grove of neighboring Kings Canyon National Park.
"The Park Service doesn't keep track of those kinds of statistics," Caprio said. "But
among those groups that do, there are two ways of thinking -- one that wants the
rankings to be changed and another that says it should be measured by what the tree
would be if it was intact."
Prior to the recent damage, one could argue that the Washington Tree should be
shuffled down the rankings.
Researchers from Humboldt State University and the University of Washington
discovered a pit as they prepared to study the tree's complex crown structure.
Stephen Sillett, an associate professor of biological sciences at Humboldt State,
rappelled into the huge pit, which ranged from 6 to 9 feet wide and reached from the
tree's shattered top down nearly 115 feet toward the base.
The pit's interior walls were lined with rotten, decaying wood and scorch marks from
In their study, Sillett and the other 1999 researchers noted that because of the pit,
the tree's actual wood volume was less than than that of the General Grant Tree.
The debate over size records illustrates the personification that humans are likely to
attach to the trees, especially those that have been given names.
"People are great at looking at the sequoias in an emotional context," Tweed said.
"We're fascinated by size, rarity and longevity."
And while people may have an emotional reaction to changes in the Washington Tree, he
added, change is to be expected in nature.
"The purpose of the park," Tweed said, "is to allow the natural things to go on."