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How the giant sequoia came to England

Giant redwood trees in the country park at Tredegar House, Newport, South Wales.
A giant redwood tree, Sequoiadendron giganteum, in the country park at Tredegar House | © National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

Discover how a mammoth conifer, known as 'the big tree', sparked a craze in British horticultural circles and a race to be the first to name the tree.

Tall tales

A feverish William Lobb, racing back to England in the autumn of 1853, knew he held the raw material of a legend. The seeds he carried aboard ship contained an epic tale, dwarfed only by the mythic proportions of the tree that had produced them.

Though a seasoned plant collector for the Veitch Nurseries, he had seen nothing in his travels to prepare him for his first glimpse of the ‘big tree'.

In search of the 'big tree'

In 1852, Lobb visited San Francisco, where he first heard of mammoth conifers in the foothills of California’s Sierra Nevada range. Lobb knew this ‘vegetable monster’ would trigger an enormous craze in British horticultural circles and hurried to the Sierra foothills too see the remarkable tree in its native habitat.

He found about 90 towering trees and reported that a felled tree had measured 300 feet with a diameter of over 29 feet near its base. A section of this 3,000-year-old tree was displayed in San Francisco where its hollowed (and carpeted) slice of trunk could comfortably accommodate a piano with an audience of 40.

Lobb collected seed, shoots, and seedlings. In fewer than two years’ time these would give rise to thousands of saplings, snatched up by wealthy Victorians to adorn great British estates.

The larger-than-life conifer, so symbolic of the vast American wilderness, suddenly became a status symbol in Britain.

A giant redwood, Sequoiadendron giganteum, in the garden at Scotney Castle, Kent
A giant redwood, Sequoiadendron giganteum, in the garden at Scotney Castle | © National Trust Images/Kirsty Gibbons

The 'big tree'

Towering skywards, this giant redwood can be seen in the garden at Scotney Castle.

What's in a name?

Back in California, the mammoth conifers were presented as tourist attractions to the American public. The 'big tree', as they dubbed it, was vastly appealing to the masses flocking from far and wide to visit Calaveras Grove, sleep in its hotel and waltz across its expansive tree stump, turned dance floor.

Shortly after the discovery of the big tree came the question of what to name it.

Washington or Wellington?

Dr. Kellogg, the founder of the California Academy of Sciences, was instrumental in the discovery of the tree. He planned to name the tree the 'Washingtonia' in honour of America’s revered first President.

Kellogg only needed to complete his set of herbarium specimens to register the new species. Lobb knew this, and quickly returned to England with the required specimens before his rival could carry out his plans.

To add insult to injury, John Lindley of the Horticultural Society, who was assigned the task of naming the introduction, opted for the decidedly un-American Wellingtonia gigantea to commemorate the lately deceased Duke of Wellington.

Avenue of Wellington trees lining a dirt path, with other trees and hedges among them at Sunnycroft, Shropshire
Avenue of Wellingtonia trees leading to the house at Sunnycroft, Shropshire | © National Trust Images/Annapurna Mellor

A living monument

This was greeted with indignation across the pond, sparking a debate that would rage on for years.

Ultimately, a scientific name settled the argument. Sequoiadendron giganteum was chosen to reflect the tree’s botanical link to the coastal or California redwood, Sequoia sempervirens.

That we persist in calling it the Wellingtonia, is a testament to its value as a living monument.

You can see towering examples of S. giganteum at close range at:

A path leading into a leafy glade dappled with sunlight, a shrub with pink flowers in the middle with blue flowers below

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