5 fascinating facts about redwood trees

July 23, 2015, 8:41 a.m.
The tops of redwood trees frame a night sky showing the milky way.
Photo: Asif Islam/Shutterstock

1. Redwood trees are famous, so you may be surprised to learn that they are only found in a few small pockets of the world. There are three species of redwood: Coast redwood, giant sequoia, and dawn redwood. Each grow in very specific areas. Coast redwoods are found only in a short and narrow strip of the west coast, from California's Big Sur to southern Oregon. The giant sequoia only grows in California’s Sierra Nevada range, in scattered groves that combined are an area about the size of Cleveland. And the dawn redwood is found only in a remote area of central China. Their tiny ranges emphasize the facts that theses unique trees create a fascinating and special ecosystem.

2. Coast redwoods are the tallest of the three redwood species and can grow to well over 300 feet tall. Yet their root systems only extent to about 6 to 12 feet below the ground. They manage to stay standing by extending their shallow root system to a diameter of 50 feet or more, and tangling the roots into grooves and crevasses that provide additional strength.

3. Redwoods are so huge, a single tree itself can be habitat for an incredible number of species. When redwoods shed their foliage, much of it accumulates in the branches and decomposes to become soil, or "canopy soil," where other species of plant seeds and fungi spores can sprout. Epiphyte species, or plants that grow in trees rather than on the ground, can number in the hundreds, including lichens, bryophytes and vascular plants such as ferns. This mix of plant life growing on the boughs of the redwoods creates a wonderful and varied habitat for animal life.

Redwood trees are home to amphibians, beetles, crickets, worms, millipedes, spiders and mollusks. The clouded salamander, a species that breathes entirely through its skin and has a prehensile tail for climbing, thrives in the canopy. Chipmunks, fishers, peregrine falcons, bald eagles, the northern spotted owl, the marbled murrelet and dozens of other species call the canopy home. California condors were found nesting in the cavities of giant sequoias, and these evergreen behemoths are home to at least six species of bat.

The redwood forest creates not only a unique ecosystem on the ground, but also across every inch of space hundreds of feet above the soil. Researchers are still learning about the deeply intricate lives of redwoods.

4. Many redwoods live in earthquake country, and it seems like the shifting earth would cause trouble for the giants. But the trees have learned a survival strategy. Redwoods that are forced to lean because of shifting slopes, floods, or even other trees falling against them are able to accelerate their growth on their downhill sides, effectively buttressing themselves against further lean.

5. Redwoods are adapted for many climate events, as they'd need to be with a lifespan of 2,000 or more years. But exactly how redwoods will adapt to survive long-term climate change is still unknown. Giant sequoias rely on the Sierra snowpack to get the majority of the water they need. Coast redwoods rely on thick fog for their water. With longer, harsher droughts bringing less snowfall, and changing weather patterns bringing less fog, the trees are already struggling.

In addition, redwoods rely on fire to clear the understory of brush that competes for water, to keep it clear of combustible materials, and to create space for new seedlings to take root. With humans keeping a careful watch over forest fires, the understory is building up a density of plants and flammable leaf litter. Redwoods are adapted to survive small fires, but raging fires fed by decades of accumulated material can take a devastating toll.

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Jaymi Heimbuch is a writer and photographer at Mother Nature Network. Follow her on Twitter, Google+ and Facebook.