Washington vs Wellington: The Special Relationship and the saga of conserving the planet’s largest and tallest tree species.

Sequoia and Sequoiadendron

Known collectively as “The Redwoods,” this catch-all term refers mainly to the two North American redwood species: the Coastal Redwood and Giant Sequoia.

Coastal Redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) are the world’s tallest tree species and can be found along the northern California coast and into Oregon’s southernmost coast¹. These towering giants can grow up to a dizzying 379 feet (115 m). For reference, that is 2 meters taller than Battersea Power Station (113 m) and a whole 4 meters taller than St. Paul’s Cathedral (111 m).

The Giant Sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) on the other hand is known as the world’s largest tree species by volume. Not only do they grow up to 314 feet (94 m), they bulk out to an excess of 30 feet (9 m) in diameter¹. That is enough to fit two tube trains side by side and still having some room to spare! These trees are primarily found on the Western slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in central California and are known to live for over 3,000 years.

Giant Sequoias: The Great Naming Controversy

As the ‘discovery’ of these species was first being publicized by botanists in the 1850’s, the ensuing debacle on what to name these colossal entities was one that can still be evidenced today. What I have omitted until now, likely to the woe of the British readers, is that Giant Sequoia is merely the common name that Americans give for Sequoiadendron giganteum. However, in Britain, the tree is sometimes known as the Wellingtonia². Therefore, the naming of the Sequoiadendron giganteum (a debate that lasted approximately 86 years) remains one of the quirkier stories from the annals of the ‘Special Relationship’ that centers around science and conservation.

In 1952, a Cornish plant collector by the name of William Lobb was on contract in California to collect plants on behest of a nursery in Exeter⁴. While there he was invited to the newly formed California Academy of Science by its founder, Dr Albert Kellogg (who just so happened to be an amateur botanist). At the academy, Lobb heard the story of a hunter who accidentally stumbled into a grove of gigantic trees while tracking a grizzly bear. Lobb was captivated by the claim, not only due to the natural awe and wonder that such a story elicits, but by the potential craze that would ensue by bringing such a species back to Britain. This was the Victorian era after all and this tree would soon become a status symbol in Britain, being snatched up by wealthy Victorians to adorn great British estates².

It wasn’t long before the real question, what do we name it, entered the picture. As you can imagine, naming one of the largest living species of trees on Earth requires an equally impressive name. Dr Kellogg had planned on naming it ‘Washingtonia’ in honor of America’s first president. However, such sentiment was not equally shared across the pond…

In a rush to return to England with specimens, Lobb cut his contract short by a whole year and sailed full steam to London. Once there, he connected with John Lindley of the Horticultural Society who, in true British fashion, opted for the decidedly un-American ‘Wellingtonia gigantea’ in commemoration of the late Duke of Wellington and in direct opposition to Kellogg’s claim.


This was greeted with indignation in America and sparked a debate that would continue for 86 years². It turns out that both Kellogg’s and Lindley’s submissions were breaches of the ‘botanical code’ for nomenclature on new species. Not for any other reason than the names Wellingtonia and Washingtonia were already used for other plants!

It wasn’t until 1939 that the final and more neutral name Sequoiadendron giganteum was accepted. Despite that confirmation, some Brits continue to using the name Wellingtonia to this day. You can still see many of these ‘Wellingtonia’ that the Victorians brought to Britain to this day, arranged in neat lines or planted as lone sentinels on the grounds of old manors and estates.

Coastal Redwoods: Conserving American Giants in Cornwall

In March 2016, the environmental education charity Eden Project planted 40 coastal redwoods saplings at their site near Bodelva in Cornwall³. The Eden Projectobtained the trees in collaboration with the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive, whose main goal is to help preserve this species⁵. Their partnership at this scale has therefore led them to deem this as the first actual ‘forest’ or ‘grove’ of redwoods introduced to Europe.

While only just saplings now, coast redwoods are fast growers. The Eden Project is expecting its redwoods to reach 25m by 2050, providing a causeway of giants that will flank both sides of their entrance road. If undisturbed, this ‘forest’ will still be there for over 2,000 years. Capture

So why Cornwall of all places? Well, Coastal Redwood seedlings are shade-tolerant but frost sensitive and require abundant moisture. Unfortunately, climate change is posing a serious risk to the Sequoia sempervirens by causing California’s coastal climate to become increasingly dryer, less foggy, and more susceptible to forest fires. Cornwall’s climate on the other hand is damp, mild and consistent, an ideal location for this American ‘colony’ of the world’s tallest tree species.

Help us celebrate the centennial of the U.S. National Park Service

Should you want to explore California’s majestic redwood groves as William Lobb once did and hike around in wonderment at their size, a majority of the remaining populations of both redwood species are conserved throughout our network of National and State parks. You can visit a majority of the remaining Coastal Redwood groves in the Redwood National and State Parks as well as Humboldt Redwoods State Park. Whereas, the majority of remaining Giant Sequoia groves are distributed throughout Sequoia and King’s Canyon National Parks and Giant Sequoia National Monument.

If you have visited a National Park in the US or in the UK and are proud of the photos you have taken there, why not enter the Embassy National Parks competition?

Photos can be submitted via Twitter, Facebook or Instagram using #NationalParksContest.



For further information visit the Embassy website.


Author: Justin Sherwood


Sources/further reading:

  1. https://www.nps.gov/redw/learn/news/upload/Visitor-Guide-June-2016-4.pdf
  2. http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/features/how-the-giant-sequoia-came-to-england
  3. http://www.edenproject.com/eden-story/our-ethos/redwood-conservation-project
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Lobb#Wellingtonia
  5. https://www.ancienttreearchive.org/archangel-provides-trees-for-europes-first-redwood-forest/