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When did mature redwood trees become possible to harvest?

When did mature redwood trees become possible to harvest?

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The Coast Redwood and the Giant Sequoia are related, massive, long-living softwood trees growing on the west coast of North America. Their wood is straight, resistant to pests, and easily splittable, but they take centuries to mature. Specimens may exceed five meters in diameter and a gigagram in mass.

Widespread exploitation of the trees began with Anglo-Americans immigrating and building sawmills around the 1840s. Many of the few remaining specimens are now protected in parks.

Minimal tools and technique are needed to cut down a young redwood, but harvesting a mature one and transporting its wood, even in pieces, is dangerous and technical. Besides gigantic saws, it can take wedges, sledgehammers, drills, platforms, and maybe more.

When did the large trees become possible to harvest and handle? Is it known who was the first to cut down a mature one?

Though there may have been logging smaller trees earlier, It appears that the first well documented felling of one of the giant trees may have been in 1853:

On Monday, 27 June, 1853, a giant sequoia - one of the natural world's most awe-inspiring sights - was brought to the ground by a band of gold-rush speculators in Calaveras county, California. It had taken the men three weeks to cut through the base of the 300ft-tall, 1,244-year-old tree, but finally it fell to the forest floor.

More can be read about these events here : Mother of the Forest

This artists view shows the felled 'Mammoth' tree in the foreground, while the scaffolding is seen in the background stripping the bark from the Mother of the Forest, which later is displayed in London

Another image from here shows more detail on the size of the tree which had been cut:

The wikipedia article mentions this tree is often called the 'Discovery Tree' for its species (even though it wasn't actually the first):

Much more publicity was given to the "discovery" by Augustus T. Dowd of the Calaveras Grove in 1852, and this is commonly cited as the species' discovery. The tree found by Dowd, christened the 'Discovery Tree', was felled in 1853.

So we discovered this Wonder in 1852, an killed it in 1853. :(

Auguste Duhaut-Cilly visited Fort Ross in 1828. He made a famous drawing of the fort and wrote:

We went with Mr. Shelekhov to view his timber production… Mr. Shelekhov showed me the trunk of one that had been felled recently; it was twenty feet in diameter measured two feet from the ground and from one burl or buttress to the other; the main trunk was more than thirteen feet in width. I measured two hundred and thirty feet from the stump to to the crown, lying where it had been parted from the bole.

Given its location and size this would have been a mature, if not record-setting, Coast Redwood. Apparently the Russians brought or made more advanced tooling for forestry than the Hispanic immigrants had done.

Likely employing the same source but without saying so, Coast Redwood: A Natural and Cultural History (Evarts and Popper, eds.), says "… Russian craftsmen felled trees up to 20 feet in diameter… "

"Officially," the first known harvesting of redwood trees was after the start of the 1849 gold rush, when white men arrived in large numbers. It may have been "possible" to do this earlier, but we may never know because this was when implement was first put to tree. (There may have been some harvesting by Spanish or Russian settlers that was not recorded.)

Unofficially, the redwood may have been "harvested" by Native American tribes who had been in the region for about 1000 years. These people however, used fire to "fell" large trees, not the advanced methods you mentioned.

Redwoods Facts and History

Coastal redwoods are truly magnificent trees that provide clean air, are home to countless plants and wildlife, and can inspire awe for generations to come—but we must protect the remaining redwood forests before it’s too late. Here are some of the most awesome facts about magnificent redwood trees.

1. Tallest Tree on Earth

Coast redwood trees are the tallest trees on the planet. They can grow to 300 feet high or more, as compared to the tallest pine tree at 268 feet or the tallest tanoak at 162 feet. The tallest recorded redwood tree in the Santa Cruz Mountains is Big Basin Redwoods State Park’s “Mother of the Forest” at 329 feet high which is just 50 feet shy of the tallest tree on earth, the redwood known as “Hyperion” 1 . All this magnificence in height, and yet a typical redwood’s root system is only 6 to 12 feet deep. Redwoods create the strength to withstand powerful winds and floods by extending their roots outwards, up to 100 feet wide from the trunk, and living in groves where their roots can intertwine. A redwood can’t grow to be the tallest tree on earth alone. It needs the support and protection of other trees in the forest to grow tall—holding carbon and providing plant and wildlife habitat every inch of the way. That’s why it’s so important to protect and connect forest lands so the trees can thrive together.

2. Almost as Old as the Dinosaurs

The earliest redwoods showed up on Earth shortly after the dinosaurs – before flowers, birds, spiders… and, of course, humans. Redwoods have been around for about 240 million years 2 , and in California for at least 20 million years, compared to about 200,000 years for “modern” humans 3 . However, in just the last 150 years, human impacts have drastically reduced the number of these ancient trees through clear-cut logging and development. Only 5% of old-growth redwood forests remain. Today, Sempervirens Fund protects and restores thousands of acres of redwood forests in the Santa Cruz Mountains so they can continue to provide habitat, clean air, and awe for generations to come.

3. They Live for Thousands of Years

Officially, the oldest living coast redwood has been alive for at least 2,200 years, but foresters believe some coast redwoods may be much older 4 . Their bark helps them survive many hardships that other trees cannot—it can be at least a foot thick and contains lots of tannins, a compound that makes redwoods resistant to insects, fungus and diseases. Their bark has very little resin which is one of the ways redwoods are fire resilient. Although a redwoods’ ability for a long lifespan contributed to its Latin name, Sequoia sempervirens—sempervirens means "evergreen" or "everlasting” in Latin—most of the remaining redwoods in the Santa Cruz Mountains are “second-growth”, about 50-150 years old. When you walk or ride through the Santa Cruz Mountains, you are in a nursery of young redwoods that, if protected, can live for 2,000 years cleaning carbon from the air, providing habitat for wildlife, and inspiring people for generations to come. That’s how our founders named our nonprofit organization working to protect, expand and care for the local redwood forests “Sempervirens” in 1900. Learn more about Sempervirens Fund’s history protecting redwoods.

4. Redwoods Take Care of Each Other

A redwood’s shallow but widespread roots, help them survive by intertwining with the roots of other trees around them. Intertwined root systems provide stability to these mighty trees during strong winds and floods - quite literally holding one another down. Their shallow roots can also sprout and support new redwood trees far more successfully than from their cone seeds. Redwoods can often be seen growing in circles, known as “fairy rings” or “family circles”, because they sprouted from the roots of a parent tree. The parent tree helps to nourish the sprouts with water and sugars through its well-established root system while they grow. When the parent trees die, the young redwoods continue to grow in the circle shielding, stabilizing, and nourishing each other through their roots. Redwoods will help each other even if they aren’t “family”. Trees in the ring aren’t always genetically identical or clones of the parent tree. Some of the redwoods in a ring can also grow from seedlings 5 . Redwoods take care of one another supporting each other with nutrients through their interconnected roots including their young, sick and old. We’re also just beginning to learn about how trees like redwoods communicate and work together 6 . It takes a forest to raise a mighty redwood. Redwoods are stronger together. By protecting and connecting redwood forests in the Santa Cruz Mountains, we can help redwoods thrive together so they can grow tall, clean the most air, and provide habitat and awe for thousands of years.

5. They Make Rain

Redwoods can make it rain. Redwood trees prefer a moist environment to get all of the water they need for their gigantic size. They have adapted to help form their own habitat. A redwood’s leaves can both absorb moisture from fog right from the air and can also condense fog into drops and rain them down to soak the soil around them 7 . But that’s not all. From their leaves, redwoods can release terpenes which help condense moisture in the air into clouds that cool the forest 8 . Redwoods can also transpire moisture back into the air to help keep the forest cool and moist during dry months for themselves and the plants around them. You can read more about the role redwoods play in the water cycle here.

6. Entire Ecosystems Live in Their Branches

Entire ecosystems can live within redwood branches high off the ground. Because redwoods can grow so large and old, their shed leaves collect together with dust and water on their branches and eventually become soil mats that create mini-ecosystems 9 . Hundreds of plants including ferns, moss, lichen, huckleberries, and even other full-sized trees have been found living in the canopies of redwoods 10 . These plants provide food for wildlife living in the redwood’s soil mats including insects and amphibians 11 . While many more species of birds and small mammals such as bats and squirrels nest and find food growing on redwoods, some species like wandering salamanders live their entire lives in the canopy of a single redwood tree 12 .

7. Wild Animals Thrive Here

The redwood forests of the Santa Cruz Mountains are near the end of the largest temperate rainforest in the world which stretches up the north Pacific Coast 13 and supports hundreds of species of wildlife 14 . Wild, endangered creatures like mountain lions, Coho salmon and marbled murrelet depend on our local redwood forests to survive. Wildlife need large, connected areas of diverse habitat to get the food, water, shelter, and potential mates to thrive. Although some species like the Strobeen’s parnassian butterfly have already disappeared from the Santa Cruz Mountains due to habitat loss 15 , other species like endangered coho salmon are making a comeback thanks to habitat protection and restoration efforts. Protecting and connecting habitat for wildlife is especially critical for their survival as our communities continue to grow into natural places that once provided them refuge. When we protect habitat for threatened and endangered species, often the most sensitive or specialized creatures, all wildlife in and near the habitat benefit.

8. Redwoods are Climate Change Heroes

While all trees are crucial to maintaining a stable, human-friendly climate, redwoods are climate change heroes. Studies show that coast redwoods capture more carbon dioxide (CO2) from our cars, trucks and power plants than any other tree on Earth 16 . Thanks to their large size, long lifespan, and rot-resistant wood, redwood trees can pull and hold at least three times more carbon from the air, thereby cleaning more air and helping to keep temperatures from rising, than the average tree 17 . In fact, redwoods can be so large that new studies measuring them more effectively with the use of lasers and computer modeling to better estimate their size show that redwoods may be 30% larger than previously thought thereby holding even more carbon 18 . More research is being done to see how redwood trees can help to decrease the effects of climate change. In the meantime, protecting the redwood forests we have now is crucial particularly as the effects of climate change itself including higher temperatures, drought, and much hotter and more frequent wildfires threaten them. As the climate changes, the redwood forests in the Santa Cruz Mountains are one of very few places that can provide a refuge for local plants and animals to survive 19 , because the area has many microclimates, is cooled by coastal summertime fog and is still largely unpaved. Read more about Redwoods and Climate Change.

9. Last Natural Habitat

Coast redwood’s only natural habitat is right here on the Pacific Coast from Big Sur to southern Oregon 20 . Once redwoods had a much wider range across the Northern Hemisphere, including western North America and the coasts of Europe and Asia 21 . The coastal fog in this area has helped supply enough water to support the redwood giants through all of the seasons 22 for the last 20 million years 23 . Although coast redwoods have been established by people in other places of the world like New Zealand 24 , the oldest and tallest coast redwoods are in their natural habitat 25 where they have rain, fog, and forests of neighboring redwoods, fungi, and creatures like banana slugs helping to support them. Protecting their last remaining natural habitat is crucial so redwoods can reach their full potential as the tallest trees on the planet and our awe-inspiring climate change heroes.

10. Only 5% of Redwoods are Left

Only 5% of the original old-growth coast redwood forests that flourished on the Pacific Coast are left. Because redwoods are extremely resistant to insects, fire and rot, they are treasured for building and 95% of them have been cut down since the 1850s 26 . The survival of several redwood buildings from the 1906 fire in San Francisco launched a flurry of demand for redwood lumber in the rebuilding of the city and elsewhere 27 . By 1900, logging spurred a group of concerned people to form Sempervirens Club, now known as Sempervirens Fund, and start the redwood conservation movement which has successfully preserved thousands of acres of redwood forest. However, there is much more land still at risk. In 2011, the International Union for Conservation of Nature listed redwoods as endangered 28 . Today, we have a rare chance to re-establish the once-vast and vibrant local redwood forest into a magnificent, life-giving world between Silicon Valley and the Pacific Ocean. Although many old-growth redwoods have been cut down, younger second-growth redwoods have resprouted since then, some even of the same genetic stock of their massive predecessors. By protecting redwood forests and helping to restore ideal conditions through careful stewardship, old-growth redwood forests can grow again. With a little help from us to get started, the redwood forest can recover from the massive logging and fragmentation that took place during the last 150 years 29 . Once protected and restored, the redwood forest will take care of itself – providing plant and wildlife habitat, clean air, and inspiration for thousands and even millions of years to come.

You can help Sempervirens Fund protect and care for redwood forests and expand local parks so that you, wildlife, and future generations can enjoy these truly magnificent trees. Donate or volunteer to help preserve and restore the wildlands of the Santa Cruz Mountains. To learn more, read and watch our favorite things about redwoods or visit them in person or virtually.


Interested in digging a little deeper into the science behind these redwood facts and history? Here are some sources with more information indicated in the facts above:

Van Pelt, Robert. “Forest Giants of North America.” Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001.

Endo, S. “A Record of Sequoia from the Jurassic of Manchuria.” Botanical Gazette, 113 2, 1951, Pages 228-230. http://fossilworks.org/bridge.pl?a=referenceInfo&reference_no=70374

Yang, Z.Y., et al. "Three Genome-based Phylogeny of Cupressaceae s.l: Further Evidence for the Evolution of Gymnosperms and Southern Hemisphere Biogeography". Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, 64 (3), 2012, Pages 452–470, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ympev.2012.05.004.

Earle, Christopher J .”Eon Tree Report.” The Gymnosperm Database, 16 Jun. 1999, https://www.conifers.org/cu/se/eon_tree.txt

Narayan, Lakshmi, et al.” A genotyping protocol for multiple tissue types from the polyploid tree species sequoia sempervirens (CUPRESSACEAE).” Applications in Plant Sciences,Volume3, Issue 3, 9 Mar. 2015, Botany Association of America, https://doi.org/10.3732/apps.

Simard, Suzanne W., et al. “Mycorrhizal networks: Mechanisms, ecology and modelling.” Fungal Biology Reviews, Volume 26, Issue 1, 2012, Pages 39-60, https://zoology.ubc.ca/bdg/pdfs_bdg/2015%20Spring/Simard%20et%20al.%202012.pdf.

Limm, E. B., et al. “Foliar water uptake: a common water acquisition strategy for plants of the redwood forest.” Oecologia, 161(3), 2009, Pages 449–459, https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-009-1400-3.

Lund University. "Aerosols from coniferous forests no longer cool the climate as much." ScienceDaily, 25 Sept. 2019, www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/09/190925115119.htm.

Kirkby, J., et al. “Ion-induced nucleation of pure biogenic particles.” Nature, 533, Pages 521–526, 2016, https://doi.org/10.1038/nature17953.

Sawyer, J.O., et al. “Redwood trees, communities, and ecosystems.” Redwood Trees, Communities and Ecosystems: A Closer Look, Pages 81-118, 2000, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/287546821_Redwood_trees_communities_and_ecosystems.

Sillett, S.C., Van Pelt, R. “Trunk reiteration promotes epiphytes and water storage in an old-growth redwood forest canopy.” Ecological Monographs, 77, Pages 335–359, 2007, https://doi.org/10.1890/06-0994.1.

Sillett, Stephen, and Van Pelt, Robert. “A redwood tree whose crown is a forest canopy.” Northwest Science, 74, Pages 34-43, 2000, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/279556792_A_redwood_tree_whose_crown_is_a_forest_canopy.

Sillett, S.C., Bailey, M.G. “Effects of tree crown structure on biomass of the epiphytic fern Polypodium scouleri (Polypodiaceae) in redwood forests.” American Journal of Botany, Volume 90, Issue 2, Pages 255-261, 1 Feb. 2003, https://doi.org/10.3732/ajb.90.2.255.

Sawyer, J.O., et al. “Redwood trees, communities, and ecosystems.” Redwood Trees, Communities and Ecosystems: A Closer Look, 2000, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/287546821_Redwood_trees_communities_and_ecosystems.

Sillett, S.C., Bailey, M.G. “Effects of tree crown structure on biomass of the epiphytic fern Polypodium scouleri (Polypodiaceae) in redwood forests.” American Journal of Botany, Volume 90, Issue 2, Pages 255-261, 1 Feb. 2003, https://doi.org/10.3732/ajb.90.2.255.

Spickler, James, et al. “Evidence of a new niche for a North American salamander: Aneides vagrans residing in the canopy of old-growth redwood forest.” Herpetological Conservation and Biology, 1, 2006, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/26449214_Evidence_of_a_new_niche_for_a_North_American_salamander_Aneides_vagrans_residing_in_the_canopy_of_old-growth_redwood_forest.

Camann, Michael A.,et al. “Old-growth redwood forest canopy arthropod prey base for arboreal wandering salamanders: A report to Save-the-Redwoods League.” Humboldt State University, Arcata, CA, 2000, https://www.savetheredwoods.org/wp-content/uploads/pdf_camann.pdf.

Wikipedia contributors. “Pacific temperate rainforests.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 1 May 2021, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Pacific_temperate_rainforests&oldid=1020887730.

Cooperrider, Allen, et al. “Terrestrial fauna of redwood forests.” In: Noss, Reed F. ed., The Redwood Forest: History, Ecology, and Conservation of the Coast Redwoods, Island Press, Covelo, California, Pages 119-163, 2000, https://www.fs.fed.us/psw/publications/welsh/psw_2000_welsh001_cooperrider.pdf.

Ricketts, Taylor H. et al. “Terrestrial Ecoregions of North America: A Conservation Assessment.” Island Press, 1999, Page 244.

Olson, D., and Sawyer, John. “Northern California coastal forests.” World Wildlife Fund, 6 May 2021, https://www.worldwildlife.org/ecoregions/na0519.

Sillett, Stephen C. , et al. “Aboveground biomass dynamics and growth efficiency of Sequoia sempervirens forests.” Forest Ecology and Management, Volume 458, 15 Feb. 2020, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foreco.2019.117740.

Fimrite, Peter. “New reason to conserve redwoods - they're best at storing polluting carbon.” San Francisco Chronicle, April 30, 2020, https://www.sfchronicle.com/environment/article/New-reason-to-conserve-California-s-redwoods-15238034.php.

Disney, M., et al. “New 3D measurements of large redwood trees for biomass and structure.” Scientific Reports, 10, 15 Oct. 2020, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-73733-6.

Betts, Matthew G., et al. “Old‐growth forests buffer climate‐sensitive bird populations from warming.” Diversity and Distributions, Volume 24, Issue 4, April 2018, Pages 439-447, https://doi.org/10.1111/ddi.12688.

Shirley, James Clifford. “Distribution Of The Redwoods.” The Redwoods of Coast and Sierra, University Of California Press, Berkeley, California,1940, https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/shirley/sec4.htm.

Olson Jr., David F.,et al. “Sequoia Sempervirens.” In Burns, Russell M., and Honkala, Barbara H. “Silvics of North America: 1. Conifers.” Agriculture Handbook 654, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Washington, DC., Volume 1, Page 675, 1990, https://ucanr.edu/sites/forestry/California_forests/http___ucanrorg_sites_forestry_California_forests_Tree_Identification_/Coast_Redwood_Sequoia_sempervirens_198/

Little, Jr., Elbert L. “Conifers and important hardwoods.” Atlas of United States Trees, Volume 1, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Washington, D.C., 1971, Page 320.

Fox, L. III, and J. K. Lee. “Ultra-small scale color infrared photography proves useful for classifying and mapping coast redwood forest in California.” In Proceedings from the Twelfth Biennial Workshop on Color Aerial Photography and Videography, American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing, Bethesda, Maryland, 1989, Pages 61-70.

Frequently Asked Questions

Sequoia National Park

The massive size of the coast redwood genome (nearly 9 times larger than the human genome) posed particular challenges. Coast redwoods have six sets of large chromosomes. (Humans only have two.) In 2014, the University of California, Davis, granted $50,000 in pilot funding to Dr. David Neale to investigate the feasibility of sequencing the coast redwood genome Neale determined it was indeed possible. This pilot effort produced a preliminary sequence for coast redwoods, pointing the way toward a functional coast redwood genomic sequence.

Recent grantee Lakshmi Narayan of the University of California, Berkeley, uncovered a startling result during her doctoral research into coast redwood genetic clones in old-growth forests. Scanning the redwood trees at Big Basin Redwoods State Park for shared genetic markers, she discovered that genetic diversity was lowest in an old-growth stand where partial timber harvest occurred decades before.

  • Have past timber harvests inadvertently removed redwoods that may have been particularly well-suited for an era of climate change?
  • Where have plantings of industrial clones replaced natural genetic diversity with low-diversity redwood groves?
  • Which redwoods harbor “survival” genes for drought, disease or pest resistance, and thus warrant a targeted conservation effort?


These tallest of trees reach heights of more than 350 feet (107 m). The tallest tree in the world is named Hyperion, which reaches 379.7 feet (115.7 m). Redwoods can achieve a diameter of 24 feet (7 m), and 1.6 million lbs. (725,700 kg). These giants can live to be 2,000 years old and have graced the planet for more than 240 million years. Though they once thrived throughout much of the Northern Hemisphere, today redwoods are only found on the coast from central California through southern Oregon. They do not live more than 50 miles inland, and are usually found in long belts, rather than small groves.

True to their name, coast redwoods need a moderate, coastal climate to survive. They require the area's frequent fog to protect them from dry spells and drought. Like sequoias, redwoods require abundant water to drink and have shallow root systems. Redwoods, however, get their water from rain rather than snowmelt, and therefore require consistent rainfall throughout the year. They even "create" their own rain by trapping fog in their lofty branches. With the right amount of moisture, redwoods can grow two or three feet in a year, making them one of the fastest-growing conifers in the world.

In contrast to their size, redwoods have extremely small cones &mdash about one inch long. They have appropriately large root systems, however, often extending 100 feet (30 meters) and intertwining with the roots of other redwoods, according to the California Department of Parks and Recreation. Baby redwoods often sprout at their parents' base, latching onto their roots for nutrients. For this reason, they often grow in circular clusters sometimes called fairy rings.

The coast redwood's lumber has been highly valued historically. It is durable, resistant to rot and termites, non-warping, and relatively soft. For this reason, it has been extensively logged. Since logging began in the 1850s, 95 percent of old-growth coast redwoods have been cut down, according to the Sempervirens Fund. Today, many redwoods exist in protected forests and parks.

The changing climate presents problems for redwoods. A warmer climate may result in less rain, and perhaps more concerning, less fog, which has historically been the tree's defense against dry spells, according to an ongoing study by a group of University of California-based researchers. Fog in northern California and Oregon is on the decline because of climate change and the expanding human population along the coasts, which produce "urban heat islands," according to a UC Merced researcher with the study.

On the other hand, a long-term study conducted by the Save the Redwoods League found that coastal redwoods have seen unprecedented growth over the last 100 years. They are still trying to understand why but one theory involves lessening fog in those areas. "We can't necessarily attribute the spike in growth to any one particular thing, but we know there has been a decrease in fog in the last 100 years," said Zierten. "This means sunnier days, and on sunnier days they are able to photosynthesize a lot. That could be a possibility."

When did mature redwood trees become possible to harvest? - History

See answers to frequently asked questions about Save the Redwoods League and redwoods.

Experience the Redwoods

    grow naturally today only in a narrow 450-mile strip along the Pacific coast from central California to southern Oregon. The length of this strip is nearly equal to the distance from San Francisco to San Diego.
  • The Earth’s last giant sequoias grow naturally today only in 77 scattered groves along the western slopes of California’s Sierra Nevada mountains. grow naturally today in south-central China.

Redwood species grew throughout North America, Europe and Asia 144 million years ago. Over time and in response to an ever-changing environment, they retreated from most of their former range, and many once-abundant redwood species became extinct.

  • Explore our many free resources to help you plan your trip to the redwoods.
  • Some parks offer lodging and/or tent cabins:
    COAST REDWOODS: Big Basin Redwoods State Park, Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
    GIANT SEQUOIAS: Yosemite National Park, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

Make a Donation

  • On the web: SaveTheRedwoods.org/givetoday
  • By phone: (415) 820-5800 or (888) 836-0005 (toll free)
  • By fax: (415) 362-7017
  • By mail:
    Save the Redwoods League
    111 Sutter Street, 11th Floor
    San Francisco, CA 94104

Please make checks payable to “Save the Redwoods League.” We accept all major credits cards. There is also the option of making monthly payments from your checking account or credit card.


Unlike the coast redwoods, loggers found less value in the giant sequoias. When felled, the colossally heavy and brittle sequoia trees often shattered when they hit the ground. Still, about 35 percent of the original sequoia forest was logged. Currently, 96 percent (46,000 acres) of the historical giant sequoia range is protected, and 4 percent (2,000 acres) is privately owned.

Today, Save the Redwoods League works to protect and restore redwood forests and their surrounding lands and waterways. The League has protected more than 200,000 acres throughout the redwood range.

“Saving” the redwoods means much more than just protecting old-growth, important as that is. With careful management, previously logged or disturbed lands can be restored to health and modern-day threats like development and climate change make the work of redwoods protection more complex than ever. Leading-edge science and the support of its dedicated members and partners make it possible for the League to continue the important work of redwood forest conservation.

Old-growth forests are characterized by diverse, and often rare, communities of plants and animals due to the long period of forest stability. The imperiled Humboldt Marten, for example, relies on old-growth forest attributes to survive. It needs large fallen logs for shelter, and bountiful shrubs for foraging habitat. Through science-based restoration, younger forests can attain old-growth characteristics, like large trees, over time, healing the damage of the past and allowing wildlife communities to return and thrive once again. The League places a high priority on projects that will help to bring about the ancient redwood forests of tomorrow. Visit our restoration webpages to learn more about this exciting work.

  • National agencies: the Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service
  • State agencies: California State Parks
  • Local agencies: East Bay Regional Parks District

However, the “family tree” of these famous giants is far more extended than just the two species. In fact, the relatives of coast redwoods and giant sequoias are found on every continent except Antarctica! The “redwood relatives” thrive in all sorts of environments, from the arctic in Norway to the southernmost areas of Chile, and from 17,000 feet (5,200 m) in the mountains of Tibet all the way down to sea level. While they can grow in a variety of temperate zones, each species has adapted to survive in very specific environmental conditions. Coast redwoods hug the California coast using fog as a water source, while the golden Vietnamese cypress grows on jagged ridges and summits in the cloud forests of Vietnam, and the bald cypress dominates swampy lowlands in the southeastern United States.

The earliest specimens of these trees first appeared on the planet more than 200 million years ago, during the Mesozoic Era. Though the ice ages of the past 2 million years greatly affected the distribution of these tree species, redwood relatives still occupy many habitats around the world. Many of the remaining living examples today are considered relic species, including the coast redwood, giant sequoia, dawn redwood and alerce. They are the sole surviving representatives of ancient groups of plants that used to be far more widely distributed across the globe.

Visit the Redwood Relatives page for more information about the cypress family, including an interactive map of the species’ global distribution.

Permanent Protection of Land

Unfortunately, today the work needed to protect redwood forests is harder and more complex than ever before. Many redwood lands are still struggling to recover from years of past damage and neglect. To thrive, protected forests also depend on the health of nearby land, much of which is privately owned, including property of commercial timber companies. People also use land in ways incompatible with forest health, through development or conversion to vineyards, for example and we must find a balance between meeting human needs and the needs of the forest. In addition, we do not yet know the impact that the Earth’s changing climate will have on the size, strength and survival of redwood trees and forests.

Sustainable forestry is the practice of managing dynamic forest ecosystems to provide ecological, economic, social and cultural benefits for present and future generations (Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources 2006). A sustainable forest is also known as a working forest: some trees are removed, but with the health of the forest and its inhabitants in mind. This method supports local economies, protects tree species, and improves the health of the forest.

Protected forests can gain health benefits from a sustainable forestry practice. In fact, removing select trees in protected forests is often necessary to prevent the spread of high-intensity forest fires and to restore forests that are too dense with young trees. If young trees are growing together too closely, none of the trees have enough light, space, water or nutrients to grow. By removing some of the young trees, we lessen the competition and help the remaining trees mature more quickly.

If you want to be assured of sustainable forestry practices, choose paper and wood products that are certified by a third-party organization like the Forest Stewardship Council (external link) . Keep in mind that these third-party organizations have varying standards, some more stringent than others, and that the definition of “sustainable” can be variable as well. To some views, a sustainable forest is simply one that will keep producing a supply of wood that can be harvested. Others, like the League, consider sustainable to mean that all of the ecological systems of a forest — like its waterways, plants and animals, and soils — remain healthy and intact. California has strict rules governing forestry many believe these standards promote sustainable forestry in their own right.

The League does not support clearcutting (a practice in which virtually all of the trees in a given area are uniformly cut down) in the redwood forest. While clearcutting may be appropriate in certain forest types — in some parts of the Boreal, or in some of the catastrophic fire-driven pine forests in the southeastern U.S. — it is not reflective of the natural processes of either the coast redwood or giant sequoia forest.

The League does not take a position on timber harvest plans on private land, but we appreciate having this information in case it relates to a landowner we are working with or a project we are working on in the area.


Although kudzu is widely assumed to have significant negative ecological impacts, the influence of kudzu on biodiversity and ecological processes are surprisingly poorly studied. Anecdotal reports and general observations suggest that the dense shading created by kudzu significantly reduces native plant biodiversity. Kudzu growing in forest plantations can weigh down and smother seedlings and saplings. Larger trees blanketed by kudzu may be more prone to wind throw. Utility and railroad companies spend significant amounts of time and money controlling kudzu growing over utility poles and railroad tracks. Considerable time and money are also spent at national and state parks as well as other federal and state lands to control kudzu, especially when threatening national monuments, historical sites, or other sensitive areas.

Figure 4. Kudzu flowers are typically produced on plants that are climbing or draped over vegetation or other objects. Note the kudzu bugs at the base of the flower. Figure 5. Kudzu fruits are flattened seed pod legumes.

Kudzu is a nitrogen-fixing species, and dense infestations have the potential to significantly affect nitrogen cycling. Alteration of the nitrogen cycle can affect soil fertility, water quality, and biodiversity. Kudzu also has the potential to affect air quality, as it is an intermediate to high emitter of isoprene. Isoprene is a photochemically reactive hydrocarbon that can contribute to ozone and smog production. All plants produce isoprene, but not all produce as much as kudzu. Depending on what species a kudzu infestation has replaced, isoprene levels may be higher in the vicinity. This is especially the case during hot and dry periods of the year.

Kudzu also serves as a host for significant agricultural diseases and insect pests including Asian soybean rust and the kudzu bug (Megacopta cribraria). Kudzu bugs are of special importance as they were first detected in 2009, but within a few years, these strong fliers have spread throughout much of the southeast. A true stink bug, kudzu bugs suck sap from kudzu and many other plants, including soybeans. On average, kudzu bugs have reduced soybean yields by 18 percent, but losses as high as 47 percent have been reported. Kudzu bugs are also an urban pest as they congregate around homes and other buildings and emit a foul-smelling chemical. Kudzu bugs do damage kudzu and appear to reduce its vigor and climbing ability. However, to date, their impact has not yet been enough to control kudzu.

Figure 6. During the 1900s, kudzu was promoted as an inexpensive forage and for erosion control. (Photo credit: USDA NRCS Archive, USDA, NRCS, Bugwood.org.)

Why are California’s redwoods and sequoias so big and tall?

California is a state of superlatives. The oldest living thing lives here. The largest animal in the history of the world swims off our shores. The hottest temperature ever recorded baked visitors at Death Valley’s Furnace Creek back in 1913. California boasts the highest point in the contiguous United States and arguably the tallest waterfall in the country.

We also have the world’s tallest and biggest trees.

California’s giant sequoias and redwoods are nature’s skyscrapers. Redwoods exist in a few narrow pockets in Northern and Central California and into Southern Oregon. Sequoias live exclusively in small groves in central and Northern California with the largest grouping of them found in Sequoia National Park. These two tree species are wonders of the biological world. They are also some of the most magnificent things to behold on the planet.

I have personally climbed the Stagg tree (see photo below), the fifth-largest sequoia in the world, and I will forever remember the experience.

We are lucky to still have our big trees, what’s left of them, anyway. Just a century and a half ago, old-growth redwoods and sequoias were relatively plentiful. People marveled at them, with some early settlers in California spinning unbelievable yarns of trees that rise from the earth “like a great tower“. They also saw them as a bounteous resource, ripe for plunder.

By 1900, nearly all of California’s tall trees had been purchased by private landowners who saw in the trees not beauty, but dollar signs. By 1950, nearly all of the old-growth redwoods and sequoias had been cut down for timber and other purposes. Today, only 5 percent of the old-growth coast redwood forest remains. The largest surviving stands of ancient coast redwoods are found in Humboldt Redwoods State Park, Redwood National and State Parks and Big Basin Redwoods State Park. It’s a wonder and a blessing that there are some left. And even then, they face an uncertain future thanks to climate change.

Sequoias and redwoods are closely related. The primary difference between sequoias and redwoods is their habitat. Redwoods live near the coast, while sequoias live in subalpine regions of California. Redwoods are the tallest trees in the world. Sequoias are the biggest, if measured by circumference and volume. Redwoods can grow over 350 feet (107 m). The tallest tree in the world that we know of is called the Hyperion, and it tickles the sky at 379.7 feet (115.7 m). But it is quite possible another tree out there is taller than Hyperion. Redwoods are growing taller all the time, and many of the tallest trees we know of are in hard to reach areas in Northern California. Hyperion was only discovered about a decade ago, on August 25, 2006, by naturalists Chris Atkins and Michael Taylor. The exact location of Hyperion is a secret to protect the tree from damage.

The giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) is Earth’s most massive living organism. While they do not grow as tall as redwoods – the average size of old-growth sequoias is from 125-275 feet – they can be much larger, with diameters of 20–26 feet. Applying some basic Euclidean geometry (remember C = πd?), that means that the average giant sequoia has a circumference of over 85 feet.

Many of the remaining sequoias exist on private land, and in fact, one of the largest remaining stands of Sequoias in the world – the Alder Creek Grove of giant sequoias – was just bought by the Save the Redwoods League conservation group for nearly $16 million

Sequoias grow naturally along the western slope of the Sierra Nevada mountain range at an altitude of between 5,000 and 7,000 feet. They tend to grow further inland where the dry mountain air and elevation provide a comfortable environment for their cones to open and release seeds. They consume vast amounts of runoff from Sierra Nevada snowpack, which provides groves with thousands of gallons of water every day. Many scientists are deeply concerned about how climate change might affect the grand trees, as drought conditions potentially deprive them of water to survive.

The world’s largest sequoia, thus the world’s largest tree, is General Sherman, in Sequoia National Park. General Sherman is 274.9 feet high and has a diameter at its base of 36 feet, giving it a circumference of 113 feet. Scientists estimate that General Sherman weighs some 642 tons, about as much as 107 elephants. The tree is thought to be 2,300 to 2,700 years old, making it one of the oldest living things on the planet. (To learn more about the oldest thing in the world, also in California, see our recent feature on Bristlecone pines.) Interesting fact: in 1978, a branch broke off General Sherman that was 150 feet long and nearly seven feet thick. Alone it would have been one of the tallest trees east of the Mississippi.

Many sequoias exist on private land. Just last month, one of the largest remaining private stands of Sequoias in the world – the Alder Creek Grove of giant sequoias – was bought by the Save the Redwoods League conservation group for nearly $16 million. The money came from 8,500 contributions from individual donors around the world. The property includes both the Stagg Tree mentioned above and the Waterfall Tree, another gargantuan specimen. The grove is considered “the Crown Jewel” of remaining giant Sequoia forests.

Redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens), also known as coast redwoods, generally live about 500 to 700 years, although some have been documented at more than 2,000 years old. While wood from sequoias was found to be too brittle for most kinds of construction, the redwoods were a godsend for settlers and developers who desperately needed raw material to build homes and city buildings, to lay railroads, and erect bridge trestles. The timber companies who profited from redwoods only began to cut them down in earnest a bit over a century ago. But cut them down they did, with vigor and little regard for the preservation of such an amazing organism. After World War II, California experienced an unprecedented building boom, and the demand for redwood (and Douglas fir) soared. Coastal sawmills more than tripled between 1945 and 1948. By the end of the 1950s, only about 10 percent of the original two-million-acre redwood range remained untouched.

So how did these trees get so big and tall? We don’t know for sure, but some scientists believe it has to do with the climate in which they grow. Sequoias benefit from Californa’s often prodigious snowpack, which seeps into the ground, constantly providing water to the roots of the trees. Redwoods get much of their water from the air, when dense fog rolls in from the coast and is held firm by the redwoods themselves and the steep terrain. The trees’ leaves actually consume water in fog, particularly in their uppermost shoots. According to scientists who study the trees using elaborate climbing mechanisms to reach the treetops, in summer, coast redwoods can get more than half of their moisture from fog. (In fact, fog plays a central role in sustaining several of California’s coastal ecosystems.) The reason is that fog is surprisingly dense with water. One study from scientists Daniel Fernandez of California State University, Monterey Bay, showed that a one-square-meter fog collector could harvest some 39 liters, or nearly 10 gallons, of water from fog in a single day.

Another answer to the redwood’s size may lie in the tree’s unusual, enormous genome. The ongoing Redwood Genome Project has revealed that the tree’s genome is ten times the size of the human genome (27 base pairs compared to three billion in humans), with six copies of its chromosomes (both humans and giant sequoias only have two copies) existing in a cell. It’s possible that by better understanding the redwood genome, we may uncover the precise genetic mechanism that explains how these trees have gotten so big and tall.

Yet another factor may be the trees remarkable longevity. They are survivors. The Sierra Nevadas have long experienced dramatic swings in climate, and this may be yet another of those swings that the trees will simply endure. Or maybe not. For most of the time that redwoods and sequoias have existed, they have done a remarkable job fighting off fires, swings in climate, as well as disease and bug infestations. Because their bark and heartwood are rich in compounds called polyphenols, bugs and decay-causing fungi don’t like them.

The thirst for fog and proximity to water sources could be the trees undoing, however. Although they have managed to survive for hundreds if not thousands of years, climate change could well be the one new variable that changes everything for the trees.

As the air heats up due to global warming, there is a rising threat to the trees’ survival. Warm air pulls moisture from leaves, and the trees often close their pores, or stomata, to maintain their water supply. When the pores close, that prevents carbon dioxide from nourishing the tree, halting photosynthesis. The climate in areas where the trees grow hasn’t yet experienced the kind of temperatures that might kill them, but we are really just at the beginning of this current era of global warming, and some scientists warn hotter temperatures could doom many trees.

That said, other studies that show the increased carbon that causes warming could actually be good for the trees. According to an ongoing study from Redwoods Climate Change Initiative, California’s coast redwood trees are now growing faster than ever. As most people know, trees consume carbon dioxide from the air, so, the scientists argue, more carbon means more growth.

We will see. The good news is that to date, no drought-induced mortality has been observed in mature coastal redwoods or giant sequoias.

It all comes down to some kind of balance. Trees may benefit from more carbon, but if it gets too hot, trees could start to perish. That’s a bit of a conundrum, to say the least.

The prospect of losing these magnificent trees to climate change is a double whammy. Not only would a mass die-off of trees be terrible for tourism and those who simply love and study them, but trees are some of the best bulwarks we have on the planet to fight climate change. Redwoods are among the fastest-growing trees on earth they can grow three to ten feet per year. In fact, a redwood achieves most of its vertical growth within the first 100 years of its life. Among trees that do the best job taking carbon out of the atmosphere, you could hardly do better than redwoods and sequoias.

Numerous groups are actively trying to plant more redwoods around the world in the hope that they might become a sink for carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Indeed, there is some evidence that planting vast tracks of trees globally could have a major impact on climate change.

The Archangel Ancient Tree Archive, an organization out of Copemish, Michigan, has been “cloning” California’s big trees for nearly a decade. They take snippets of the trees from the top canopy and replant them, essentially creating genetically identical copies of the original tree. It’s more like propagating than cloning, but that’s what they call it. The group’s founder, David Milarch, believes fervently that planting large trees is our best bet in stopping climate change. This is the video story I produced about Milarch back in 2013. It’s worth a watch. He’s an interesting character with a lot of passion.

Preserving and protecting what’s left of these amazing organisms should be a priority in California. These trees are not only part of the state’s rich natural legacy, but they offer ample opportunities for tourism and strengthening the economies of the regions where they grow. It’s hard to visit Redwood National and State Parks or Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks and to come away with anything but awe at these magnificent organisms. California is special, and we are blessed to have these trees and the places where they grow in our state.

Other resources:

Save the Redwoods League has got a lot of interesting information about California’s redwoods, including some great YouTube videos.

A lovely short film part of Nat Geo’s Short Film Showcase on redwoods.

Video by California Through My Lens: 36 Hours in Redwood National Park

Homegrown potatoes tell you when to harvest them

Knowing when to harvest homegrown potatoes and how to handle them after harvest helps gardeners end up with the maximum amount of potatoes possible to store for those cold winter months.

Potatoes are definitely one of America's favorite vegetables. Did you know that each year we eat about 125 pounds of potatoes per person? Potatoes are a staple food and many home gardeners plant potatoes to store them for the fall and winter months. Knowing how to take care of your homegrown potatoes is important so that they store well.

Michigan State University Extension has these tips for winter storage of homegrown potatoes:

    by not watering them much after they flower.
  • Let the potato plants and the weather tell you when to harvest them. Wait until the tops of the vines have completely died before you begin harvesting. When the vines are dead, it is a sure sign the potatoes have finished growing and are ready to be harvested.

Potatoes are tubers, and you want your plant to store as much of that flavorful starch as possible.

  • Dig up a test hill to see how mature the potatoes are. The skins of mature potatoes are thick and firmly attached to the flesh. If the skins are thin and rub off easily, your potatoes are still too new and should be left in the ground for a few more days.
  • Don&rsquot leave the potatoes that you have dug in the sun for long after they have been dug up from your garden, otherwise your potatoes may turn green. Green potatoes have a bitter taste and if enough is eaten can cause vomiting and diarrhea. Small spots can be trimmed off, but if there is significant greening, throw the potato out.
  • Potatoes can tolerate light frost, but when the first hard frost is expected, it&rsquos time to get out the shovels and start digging potatoes. An interesting place you might not be aware of is the potato museum in Washington, D. C. that contains lots of history, information and artifacts relating to potatoes including antique harvesting tools.
  • As you dig, be careful not to scrape, bruise or cut the potatoes. Damaged potatoes will rot during storage and should be used as soon as possible.
  • After harvesting, potatoes must be cured. Let them sit in temperatures of 45 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit for about two weeks. This will give the skins time to harden and minor injuries to seal.
  • After the potatoes have been dug, brush the soil off. Do not wash potatoes until you&rsquore ready to use them. Washing can easily reduce the storage life and encourage mold.
  • Store potatoes in a cool, dark area after harvesting. Too much light will turn them green.

Sometimes before harvesting some potatoes become exposed to the sun because they are just barely underground and not covered with soil. Keep soil over the potatoes to prevent sunlight from turning them green. If you want new potatoes, which are small, immature potatoes about 1 to 2 inches in size, harvest them just before their vines die. Remember though that the more baby potatoes you dig, the fewer full-sized ones you will have for later in the season.

After you decide when to dig up potatoes, get the whole family involved. Equipped with a small basket, even the smallest child can share in this fun and rewarding experience.

To learn even more about potatoes, go to MSU Extension&rsquos Michigan Fresh website. This site has a wide variety of fact sheets that will help you use, store and preserve fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables. You will also find information on flowers and ornamentals.

Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree

The Rockefeller Center tree is located at Rockefeller Center, west of Fifth Avenue from 47th through 51st Streets in New York City.

The Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree dates back to the Depression era. The tallest tree displayed at Rockefeller Center arrived in 1948. It was a Norway Spruce that measured 100 feet tall and hailed from Killingworth, Connecticut.

The first tree at Rockefeller Center was placed in 1931. It was a small unadorned tree placed by construction workers at the center of the construction site. Two years later, another tree was placed there, this time with lights. These days, the giant Rockefeller Center tree is laden with over 25,000 Christmas lights.

Treat… or Treat? How Did Medieval People Get Their Sugar Fix?

Have you ever wondered how medieval people sweetened their dishes? In the West, honey was the prime sweetener before the introduction of sugar. But even when Europeans gained access to sugar in the High Middle Ages, it was reserved to the wealthy. Whether they used honey or sugar, medieval cookbooks are chock full of sweet treats and recipes, among which are candied fruits or nuts, marzipan (almond paste), jams and marmalade, cakes and tarts. Are you hungry yet? Keep reading!

Before delving into sugar production, we shall look at the number one medieval sweetener: honey. Medieval Europeans sweetened their food with it up to the eleventh or twelfth century. Honey is produced by bees, and bees have been domesticated by humans since at least the third millennium before the common era—over 5,000 years ago! In the Middle Ages, beekeeping was widespread across the globe, although the species of honey bees that were used varied from one area to the other, as did the shape and material of the human-made hives.

Honey: the safe choice

Numerous medieval authors wrote treatises that included chapters devoted to beekeeping and beehives in which they debated the best techniques to harvest fine honey. Honey was therefore relatively cheap, mainly because it could be produced nearly everywhere, as long as there were bees. And bees are adaptable to a wide array of climatic conditions: even the Vikings kept bees in Scandinavia, in hives carefully padded with straw and bark.

Legislation on beekeeping varied greatly across Europe and depended on local customs and usages. It was, however, a rural activity, in which the Church was usually actively involved. Monasteries often possessed a few hives entrusted to peasant beekeepers. Bees indeed produce wax, on top of honey, a sought-after material essential in the making of candles. Wax candles were the finest type of candles as well as the most expensive. The humble people lit their homes with more affordable tallow candles.

Because it was so common and so readily accessible, honey was the main ingredient used to sweeten dishes in Western Europe. It remained that way even when sugar had become available on the European market. The reason is that honey was always much cheaper than sugar. In the late fourteenth century Ménagier de Paris, a housekeeping guide written by a Parisian bourgeois for his young wife, honey is omnipresent. It is listed in the ingredients of numerous beverages, sauces and jams. Nowadays, jams are made with sugar.

Although the Ménagier mentions sugar in a few recipes, its writer still preferred to use honey to prepare candied fruits, such as candied orange peel. The preparation necessitated sour oranges—an exotic fruit in the Middle Ages, imported from Iberia—and the process of candying the fruits required so much sweetener that it would have been too expensive to make the recipe with sugar.

To make candied orange peel, cut the peel of one orange into five pieces and scrape off the pith with a knife. Then soak the peels in nice fresh water for 9 days, changing the water every day. After that, bring them just to a boil in fresh water, then spread them on a cloth and let them dry very well. Put them in a pot and cover with honey, and boil over a low fire and skim. To test whether the honey is cooked, drop one drop of hot honey into a bowl of water. If it spreads, it is not cooked but if the drop of honey holds together in the water without spreading, it is cooked. Draw out the orange peels one at a time and layer them, sprinkling with ginger powder between each layer, usque in infinitum. Let season a month or more before eating.

Besides its role in the kitchen, honey’s medicinal properties meant that it appeared frequently in electuaries, that is, in medicinal recipes. Because of its antibacterial properties, honey could also serve to make unguents and was used as a topical remedy applied directly to the skin. Versatile and readily available, honey was the sweetener of choice for most of the European people. Sugar, a luxurious commodity, only appeared on their tables in the high Middle Ages.

From South-East Asia to Europe: The Sugarcane

Sugar, like honey, has a multi-millenary history. Its cultivation originates from South-East Asia and was gradually introduced to the Persian Sassanid Empire, where sufficient irrigation for the canes allowed production. After the Arab conquest of the Sassanid Empire, in the seventh century, sugarcanes were imported to Syria, Palestine and Egypt for cultivation attempts. By the ninth and tenth centuries, plantations were attested in North Africa, Southern Iberia and Sicily, areas that were then under Arab rule.

The spread of the sugarcane was and still is geographically limited. Unlike the highly adaptable bee, sugarcanes are tropical plants that thrive under a hot and humid climate. They need constant irrigation and consistently warm weather. Temperatures below 20 degrees Celsius greatly reduce the crops’ growth, and periods of frost kill them. Except for the Nile shores in Egypt and well-irrigated areas of Palestine, the Mediterranean basin does not provide the best environment for the cane. Mediterranean summers are dry and winters are generally cool.

The expansion of the sugarcane was only made possible by the development of sophisticated irrigation and agricultural techniques by Arab scientists. They conducted extensive research and experimentation that enabled the establishment of plantations in the southern and western rims of the Mediterranean. The development of sugarcane plantations was therefore restricted to specific areas, making sugar a de facto rare and limited product.

Demand for sugar increased from the eleventh century when Europeans came into contact with areas where sugar was produced. The Norman conquest of Sicily in the eleventh century, the progressive conquest of Al-Andalus by the Christian kingdoms, the Crusades and the establishment of the Crusader states in Palestine provide the backdrop for the Westerners’ growing interest in the luxurious sweetener.

Production then expanded in areas Europeans controlled. They successfully established plantations in Greece and on Mediterranean islands such as Rhodes, Malta, Crete or Cyprus. Southern Italy and, in the fifteenth century, Southern Portugal, also provided relatively suitable environments for the sugarcane. Europeans tried to introduce sugarcanes at higher latitudes, such as in Tuscany or Provence in the early sixteenth century, but these attempts failed due to the local climatic conditions. In Iberia, Morocco or Sicily, the European canes never fully matured and yielded less sugar than canes growing in tropical climates.

Sugarcanes: A Peasant’s Headache

Sugarcanes were known by medieval peasants to be demanding on the soil. They aren’t grown from seeds, but from setts, which are cuttings of a mature plant. After a harvest—once a year—peasants left the roots in the furrows to produce the next crop. This technique is called “ratooning.” Yields of ratoon crops declined over the years, requiring that the fields be cleared and replanted every third year at best. When the canes had been removed, peasants had to leave the land uncultivated for at least a year. Archival evidence shows that some peasants were reluctant to plant sugarcanes because of their impact on the soil.

Thankfully, Arab agronomists had developed techniques to improve the growth and yield of sugarcanes. In their treatises, they formulated recommendations based on their experimentations and on the attempts made, from Syria to Southern Iberia, to implement in the industry. The development of irrigation systems had enabled the introduction of plantations in otherwise dry regions. Research on fertilization strived to tackle the issue of poor yields and soil exhaustion.

Illustration of a sugarcane plant in a collection of medical texts, Italy (Salerno), c. 1280–1350: British Library Egerton MS 747, f. 106r

Manuring, they found, was the best response. Each animal’s manure had distinctive characteristics appropriate to different soils and climates. Al-Andalus agronomist Al-Tighnari recommended in his twelfth-century husbandry treatise Zuhrat fertilizing the canes of the Granada region with bovine manure, applied directly to the soil, and to avoid the presence of large straws. In other circumstances and regions, manure could be deposited in the irrigation channels and water would carry the fertilizer to the plants.

Near Sevilla, sheep manure was best, wrote agronomist Al-Awwam, in his late-twelfth century Kitāb al-filāḥa (Book of Agriculture). He recommended a thick layer of ovine manure after the first cut of the canes and advised his readers to leave the flock in the fields overnight. At the height of growing season, he continued, the crops should be fertilized every eighth day.

Contracts for soil fertilization confirm that plantations created a high demand for manure. Such contracts were for instance found in fifteenth-century Sicily, where Jewish workers specialized in manuring. The smaller plantations only necessitated 25 carts of manure for one round of fertilization, but the largest ones required up to 200 carts at once.

The sugar industry

Once peasants had harvested the sugarcanes, they were sent to processing facilities. The canes were cut into pieces, then milled and pressed to extract their juice. The next step of transformation was to reduce the juice by boiling. The juice turned into a thick syrup that workers poured into inverted cones to cool, drain and crystallise. What drained out of those cones was molasse. The crystals remaining inside became unrefined loaves of sugar. The finest quality of sugar was obtained by dissolving the first yield of sugar into water, re-boiling it, and recrystallizing it two or more times. The process required tremendous quantities of wood for boiling, causing severe deforestation in the areas where sugar was processed.

Making sugar was therefore an industrial activity involving a large number of different workers. Those who grew the canes were not those selling sugar at the end of the process. The sugar industry was usually controlled by wealthy investors who oversaw the entirety of the process. Up until the end of the fifteenth century, cultivation and processing usually occurred in the same region. The city of Fustat (Cairo, in Egypt), for instance, counted 66 sugar refineries in 1324. At the close of the Middle Ages, however, several European cities had opened refineries and imported raw canes that were processed locally.

Historians have observed great variances in the statutes of peasants and workers involved in the sugar industry, both geographically and chronologically. In the Muslim lands of Spain, North Africa and the Levant, peasant-owned plots neighboured large estates, parcelled out to tenants who cultivated the fields against a portion of their harvests. One exception was Egypt during the Mamluk rule (c. 1250-1517), where the state controlled the land. Peasants who cultivated the fields paid a tax or a portion of the crops in exchange.

In Christian-controlled areas of the Levant, things were different. In the Crusader states, sugar was grown on the lords’ demesne lands. Cultivation of the canes and work at the processing facilities was a duty, a corvée, levied on the peasantry forced to provide the unpaid labour. All revenues went directly to the lord. On the Greek islands of Crete and Cyprus, controlled by Italian cities, corvées also prevailed, with a growing recourse to enslaved labourers at the end of the Middle Ages. In Cyprus especially, large plantations owned by rich Italians employed hundreds of workers and slaves, in a manner foreshadowing the colonial and slave-based plantations of the Antilles and the Caribbean.

While the sugar industry generated immense profits, peasants were rarely the ones benefiting from it or even consuming it. Large landowners and wealthy investors gained the most from the lucrative sweetener. The link between forced labour and sugar production became evident at the close of the Middle Ages and beginning of the sixteenth century when plantations were established in tropical colonies settled by Europeans. Before Brazilian sugar appeared on western tables in the 1530s–40s, the Portuguese had colonized the island of Sao Tome, in the African Gulf of Guinea, where they had established plantations relying on slave labour. Still, until sugar became cheaper in the early modern era, honey remained the safest and cheapest choice to make treats in Europe.