The native peoples living within the range of this species were no doubt well aware of this gigantic tree for at least three Native American names for the species are known.  Its discovery by non-natives probably occurred in the 19th century and mention of the trees are found in the journals of several explorers and accounts of hunters, including Zenas Leonard and Joseph Walker, both in 1833, John Bidwell in 1844; in 1850 John M. Wooster carved his initials in the bark of a tree in the now famous Calaveras North Grove, which is located some 60 miles northeast of Stockton, California, in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  However, little attention was given to these discoveries, in part because some mentions were not published until years later.  The most effective discovery, or rediscovery, occurred in the spring of 1852 when a gold miner named Augustus T. Dowd was hunting a grizzly bear and came upon the huge trees of the Calaveras Grove. Upon his return to the mining camp of Murphys he told others about the amazingly large trees.  Later he returned to the grove to show the trees to a group of camp skeptics.  The 50 acre grove of trees was found to contained specimens that were as much as 325 ft (99 m) high and 19 ft (6 m) in diameter.

       Word of the Mammoth Trees, as they were called, quickly spread and by June of that year samples of branches, leaves were passed on to Dr. Albert Kellogg, a medical doctor and botanist in San Francisco and a founding member of the California Academy of Sciences.  According to some reports the initial plant samples lacked flowers and fruit (seed cones) and Kellogg was waiting for the arrival of complete herbarium specimens before making a formal description of the species which he intended to name Washingtonia gigantea, in honor of George Washington.   In the interim, in 1853, he showed the tree specimens and provided information to William Lobb who recently arrived from England on a plant collecting mission for the British nursery firm Veitch & Co.  In contrast to Kellogg who had never visited Calaveras Grove, Lobb quickly headed to the grove and had the good luck to find a recently fallen tree.  He measured the tree ("about 300 feet in length, 29 feet 2 inches, at 5 feet above the ground..."), collected complete specimens and gathered two small living trees.  He returned to San Francisco, and without saying a word to any American scientist, set off for England.  Lobb arrived on December 15, 1853 and soon gave the collected specimens to John Lindley, first professor of botany at the Univ. of London, who quickly published a formal botanical description of the tree in the Gardener's Chronicle, of which he was the editor, of December 24.  He named the species Wellingtonia gigantea as a memorial to Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, who defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, and who had died in September the previous year.  The “giant amongst trees” was considered an appropriate memorial for such an important British historical figure.

      However, the above story, which is oft repeated, of William Lobb, James Veitch and John Lindley and the first introduction of the Giant Sequoia into England and the rest of the world is in error.  In August of 1853, some four months before Lobb returned to England in December of that year, Patrick Matthew of Gourdiehill Estate near the village of Errol in Perthshire Scotland received a letter from his son, John D. Matthew, a mining engineer in the gold fields of California.  In the letter he described his challenging trip to a stand of the giant trees, a sketch of some of them, a small branch, and a packet of seeds of the Giant Sequoia.  Patrick Matthew sent excerpts of his son’s letter and other reproduced pieces directly to The Gardener's Chronicle in September of 1853 in care of none other than John Lindley. Lindley did not publish this information until July of the next year, 1854, and in the interim gave credit to William Lobb of the Veitch nursery for the introduction of the Giant Sequoia to Europe.   Furthermore, Patrick Matthew gave an account of his son’s 1853 letter in which his son referred to the big redwood trees as Wellingtonia, six months before Lindley is attributed with coining the name for the tree.  In 1866, 13 years after Giant Sequoia seeds first arrived in England and a year after the death of John Lindley, the editorial staff of the Gardener’s Chronical wrote a retraction and credited John D. Matthew with having collected the first seed to reach England and that Patrick Matthew planted and grew the first Giant Sequoia in Europe.

       American botanists were outraged that an English botanist, John Lindley, who had never seen the world’s largest tree named it for an English war hero, the Duke of Wellington.  They published numerous alternate names for the species, including the one finally put forth by Dr. Kellogg in May, 1855, as Taxodium giganteum.  Other names include Washingtonia californica, Taxodium washingtonium, Sequoia wellingtonia, and Sequoia washingtoniana.  As luck would have it, Lindley’s name of 1853 was invalid because Wellingtonia had been used in 1840, unknown to Lindley, in the formal description of an Asian broadleaf tree, Wellingtonia arnottiana, in the family Sabiaceae.  According to international taxonomic regulations a given name may only be used to identify a single genus and its earliest use has precedence.  Joseph Decaisne, a Belgian botanist and director of the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, published the species as Sequoia gigantea in 1854, an assignment that ultimately won acceptance by British botanists.  Unfortunately, Sequoia gigantea was also an invalid name, since Sequoia had been used in 1847 by Stephen L. Endlicher, an Austrian botanist, to designate the genus of the Coast Redwood, Sequoia sempervirens.  Later he added the Sierra Redwood to the genus Sequoia, making its name Sequoia gigantea.  But not all botanists agreed that it should be placed in the same genus as the Coast Redwood.  In 1939 John T. Buchholz, a botanist at the University of Illinois, argued that based on a number of differences, including seed cone development and chromosomal characteristics, the Sierra Redwood did not belong in the same genus as the Coast Redwood (i.e., Sequoia) and he named the separate Sierra Redwood genus Sequoiadendron and the species type of the genus, the Sierra Redwood, as Sequoiadendron giganteum.  Apparently this designation was not a popular choice either for it was widely criticized by many senior California botanists, but his arguments and his designation (Sequoiadendron giganteum) have subsequently won general acceptance.  The authorities for this name are Lindley and Buchholz, and the formal botanical name, including the authority, of the Sierra Redwood is written as Sequoiadendron giganteum (Lindl.) Buchholz.

Some references

  • Buchholz, J. T. 1939. The Genetic Segragation of Sequoias. Amer. J. Botany 26(7):535-538.
  • Ewan, Joseph. 1973. William Lobb, Plant Hunter for Veitch and Messenger of the Big Tree.  University of California Publications in Botany 67: 1-36.
  • Hartesveldt, R.J., H.T. Harvey, H.S. Shellhammer, and R.E. Stecker.  1975. The Giant Sequoia of the Sierra Nevada. U.S. Dept. of the Interior, National Park Service, Washington, D.C.
  • Patrick Matthew
  • Peattie, Donald C. 1953. A Natural History of Western Trees. 751 p., Bonaza Books, Crown Pub., New York.
  • Sequoiadendron giganteum