Monday, August 12, 2002, 12:00 a.m. Pacific
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State's king-size trees reign supreme with wet climate, good genes and no hurricanes
By Eran Karmon
Seattle Times staff reporter
LAKE QUINAULT This tree is a gnarled throwback, a 2,000-year-old sentinel with its head in the mist. At 174 feet tall, its base is almost as wide as a two-lane road and dwarfs hikers who can only lift their heads in wonder at a giant that has stood since the time of Jesus.
This is the world's biggest-known cedar. It's one of many record-size trees in Western forests, where the climate helps trees grow older and bigger than just about anywhere else.
Of its 17,650 cubic feet of wood enough to make a two-by-four about 60 miles long only a 2-foot wide artery is alive, snaking up an otherwise dead trunk like a drain pipe. Most of the green leaves at its crown belong to a 10-foot hemlock growing on top of the cedar, a tree so substantial that other trees live on it.
The cedar is a reminder of the old-growth forests that once carpeted Western Washington. After 150 years of logging, less than 15 percent of the state's old growth remains. Less than 1 percent of coastal behemoths still stand.
But some champion trees, many within easy travel of Seattle, still reign. And as inspiring as they are, they only get better with age.
"They don't really come into their own until the second thousand years," says Robert Van Pelt, a University of Washington forest researcher and coordinator of Washington's big-tree program.
Big-tree hunters like Van Pelt call the largest-known individual of a species "champion." And Washington's forests are crowded with champions.
Three of the five largest-growing trees spruce, fir, and cedar are here. Only California's giant sequoias and redwoods are bigger.
Like the Quinault Lake cedar, other champions have stood for hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years.
"Longevity in plants embarrasses animals pretty quickly," says UW forest-resources Professor Tom Hinckley.
Trees have us beat in ways other than longevity. They use simple biological systems to perform tasks beyond the capabilities of many living, or even mechanical, things.
Each tracheid is a chamber left behind by a dead cell. It can take days for a drop of water to travel the height of a big tree, and it'll climb through a million or more tracheids on the way.
Some scientists theorize that cells on either side of a tracheid expand to squeeze water through. Remarkably, a can seal itself off if air or an insect pest gets inside it, protecting the rest of the tree.
Trees live longer and grow bigger than anything else without using a nervous system or any other kind of central control.
They use cues from the environment and secrete chemical signals, or hormones, to control how fast, how big, and in what shape to grow.
A hormone called auxin gives young firs their tidy Christmas-tree shape. Auxin is secreted from the top of a tree and signals branches to grow horizontally, not vertically. Big firs don't look like 250-foot-tall Christmas trees because they're too large for auxin to control, so they start growing irregularly, with multiple vertical segments.
A 300-foot-tall California redwood named "Iluvatar" has 209 trunks. Van Pelt, who's climbed Iluvatar, said this one tree's canopy is like a whole forest tracheid.
Other hormones keep a tree from growing too big or too fast. A tree with shallow roots shouldn't grow too big, because it would topple over, so its roots secrete a hormone that slows down above-ground growth. That's why trees growing in rocky soil are stunted and those growing in deep, wet ground are tall.
When a tree bends in the wind, it secretes a hormone that causes it to grow stout rather than tall, shoring it up against gusts. If it's protected from the wind, it'll grow tall and skinny.
Unlike animals, trees have embryonic cells that divide to produce different types of cells and not only copies of themselves. The cells stay active forever, not just in the very early stages of development.
The human version of these cells, sometimes called stem cells, are the focus of much medical research and ethical controversy.
Because trees have these cells for life, they can add girth and height almost indefinitely.
"When you have a 5,300-year-old bristlecone pine, the only way it's able to accomplish that is luck and these perpetually embryonic cells," Hinckley said of the planet's longest-living organisms.
Evergreens that grow cones, like fir, spruce, cedar, and hemlock, are by far the longest-living and tallest-growing type of trees. And the forests of North America's West Coast are the only ones dominated by conifers.
Like the one member of the family who never seems to age or put on weight, conifers have the gift of good genetics.
They have excellent chemical protection against fungal infections, the cause of almost all tree deaths.
And they resist rot, part of the reason they make such popular building materials.
East Coast forests are dominated by deciduous trees that lose their leaves and stop growing in winter. Conifers grow year-round.
Of the 10 largest-growing tree types, eight are conifers; only two species of closely related Tasmanian eucalyptus are on the list.
The odds are especially stacked in favor of West Coast trees, because there are no hurricanes and few really thunderous storms, which often topple or damage trees.
The northern hemisphere's biggest Lombardy poplar isn't in its native Italy, but in the city of Seattle, near the corner of South Lake Washington Boulevard and South Atlantic Street, according to Seattle plant expert Arthur Lee Jacobson.
Like a champion boxer, a champion tree's hold on the title can be fleeting. As soon as a bigger one is found, the mantle is taken away.
Van Pelt has nominated over 60 trees for champion status. Some have since fallen, beaten by new finds.
When he became Washington's big-tree program coordinator 16 years ago, the state had 13 national champions. Now it's got 50 only California has more.
Contention usually swirls about the top contenders.
Both the Quinault Lake Spruce and the Klootchy Creek Giant near Seaside, Ore., have signs proclaiming them the world's largest.
Van Pelt says the height, girth, and canopy spread-based point system used to rank champion trees is open to too much error.
He uses a surveyor's laser to measure trunk width all the way up a tree, and measures each branch too, sometimes climbing high into the canopy to get an accurate reading. Then he calculates the tree's total wood volume, which he says is a better criterion than total points.
Who knows how today's champions would stack up against the big trees that were logged long ago? The 10 biggest-known Douglas fir all fell to pioneer saws years ago, Van Pelt says.
"What we have now is just table scraps."
Natural Wonders appears every other Monday. Eran Karmon can be reached at 206-464-2155 or firstname.lastname@example.org.