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The Ferguson Tree Edition
On Hyperion, William Ferguson, and the Nooksack Giant
Mark Slavonia (MJS) is an investor, a pilot, and an avid cyclist. He wrote about radio altimeters, rowing machines, traveler’s checks, and more. He posts other things that are interesting on his website.
A coast redwood. Not the tallest one.
Mark here. The tallest known living tree, a California coast redwood named Hyperion, was discovered in 2006 and stands 381 feet (116 meters) tall. The tallest trees in the world are California coast redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens). Their close cousins, the giant sequoias, are the most massive.
But it might not have always been this way.
Why is this interesting?
On February 21,1872, William Ferguson, Inspector of State Forests for Victoria, Australia, made a report to his boss, the Assistant Commissioner of Lands and Survey. Fortunately it was a slow news day in nearby Melbourne, and the Melbourne Sun ran the report on page 3 the next day. While surveying the nearby forests, Ferguson wrote, he discovered a downed tree that he measured to be 435 feet (133 meters) long. The treetop was broken off and missing, leading Ferguson to guess that the tree might have exceeded 500 feet when living.
The Ferguson Tree wasn’t a redwood, a sequoia, or a pine. It wasn’t even a conifer tree. It was a type of eucalyptus called a mountain ash (Eucalyptus regnans). Existing mountain ash trees are giants, too. The largest known mountain ash, the Centurion tree in Tasmania, is over 330 feet tall (100 meters) and is still growing.
The Centurion Tree, the tallest known mountain ash
The old growth forests of redwoods and mountain ashes were both extensively logged in the late 19th and 20th centuries, leaving only a small remnant of the world’s largest tree species alive. The Save the Redwoods League estimates that less than 5% of the original old growth redwood forest remains today, and the pattern is similar for mountain ash in Australia and Tasmania. We are, essentially, comparing lions to tigers by measuring animals in the zoo.
Eucalyptus trees aren’t even in the same Clade (broad grouping) of plants as redwoods. Eucalyptus trees are angiosperms (flowering), redwoods are gymnosperms (non-flowering). Mountain ash trees are more closely related to dandelions and rice than they are to redwoods.The emergence of plants with tall stalks covered with photosynthesizing green canopies has occurred independently several times in nature in a striking example of convergent evolution. What we think of as a “tree” is really a strategy, not a biological classification. It is a fascinating coincidence that the tallest flowering trees (mountain ash) and the tallest non-flowering trees, only very distantly related, top out at such similar heights.
Before we give up on redwoods, it’s worth considering that perhaps the tallest redwoods in history overtopped the Ferguson Tree and can rightly be considered king of the forest. Were there redwoods taller than Hyperion? Of course - the species dates back to the dinosaurs. Even in human history there have been larger redwoods measured. The Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 featured a section of a coast redwood that was claimed to be 427 feet (130 meters) tall when felled on Valentine’s Day, 1893.
Once one starts to wander into the dark forest of cryptobotany, the tales, and the trees, get taller still. At this point in our story the Douglas fir makes a dramatic entrance. Douglas fir is a very common tree used for dimensional lumber and Christmas trees, but they can grow to extraordinary heights. The tallest living Douglas fir is about as tall as the tallest living mountain ash (330 feet/100 meters), and pre-1900 stories of 400 foot firs pepper the Northwest U.S. and British Columbia. In 1897 a Douglas fir known as the Nooksack Giant was felled for timber in Whatcom, Washington. The local paper claimed that it had stood 465 feet (142 meters) tall. The March 7, 1897 edition of the New York Times decried that the cutting down of such a giant was “a truly pitiable tale”.
The Nooksack Giant, from The Washington Morning Times, Feb. 28, 1897
I doubt that anyone could sort these stories and fables for credibility and determine which of these trees deserves pride of place, but it is a fascinating reminder that the old growth forests that remain today are a small fraction of the forests that once grew on Earth, and that much of what we know about the natural world is seen only through the filter of time, after the impact of generations of humanity.
An excellent jumping-off point for learning about outstanding and unique trees is the Wikipedia page for Superlative Trees, Prepare to dive deep.
Thanks for reading,
Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & Mark (MJS)
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