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The Green Life: What's That Tree on the Sierra Club's Logo?

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June 27, 2013

What's That Tree on the Sierra Club's Logo?

Sierra club tree logoThe Sierra Club's logo has gone through several changes, but the tree has always been part of the seal. The giant sequoia is not only the symbol of the Sierra Club, but more important, it is also a key feature of the Sierra Nevada forests that Sierra Club founder John Muir fought hard to preserve.

The tree, whose scientific name is Sequoiadendron giganteum, was first named Wawona (meaning, "big tree") by the Native Americans. Today, it is referred to as the Sierra redwood or the giant sequoia. (Fun fact: "Sequoia" is one of the words in the English language that contains all the vowels).

Endemic to the western slope of the Sierra Nevada in California, the giant sequoia is the only species from its genus, Sequoiadendron, that has survived. The genus itself is more than 200 million years old and dominated the Jurassic period, which infers that it shared the earth with dinosaurs. In fact, giant sequoias existed before dinosaurs and have outlived them by 70 million years. Furthermore, the oldest documented giant sequoia is 3,200 years old. Take that, cockroaches!

The sequoia can grow up to 300 feet tall, and the root of one full-grown tree can take up an acre of land. The giant sequoia known as General Sherman, in California's Sequoia National Park, is considered to be both the planet's most massive tree and its largest organism in terms of volume. 

Sierra redwoodThe reason for the sequoia's long life span and survival over numerous eras is its resilience to disease, insect infestation and fire. In fact, it is nearly impossible to kill a mature giant sequoia with fire because its bark doesn't contain resin -- a viscous substance formed by plant secretions that is extremely flammable. Instead, its sap contains tannic acid, which is derived from plants and is used in fire extinguishers and on human burns because it acts as a fire repellent. Tannic acid is also instrumental in repelling parasites and insects, and thus in preventing disease. 

Nevertheless, this tree does have a couple of weaknesses: lightening and human beings. The trees grow so tall that the only thing can touch them from above is lightning. Once they reach a certain height, their upper branches are likely to be chopped off by lightning strikes, but this seldom kills mature trees. On a long-term basis, human-induced climate change has the potential to wipe out this species because of changes in temperature and rainfall. Though logging is prohibited by law, and wood from the mature tree's bark is too brittle to be favored for construction, the U.S. Forest Service has allowed commercial logging in the past, and illegal logging of the giant sequoias continues to date.

There is still much to be done to preserve this glorious tree that is important to Sierra Club and their entire ecosystem. 

-Image by iStockphoto/fcarucci

Ailsa Sachdev is an editorial intern at Sierra. She is a rising senior at Mount Holyoke College and spent the last semester reporting on witchcraft in Morocco. She is passionate about food and travel, and knows how to say "I'm hungry" in over 10 languages.

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