The Oldest Known Redwood Tree in Monterey County

In March 2019 a small team of researchers led by Steve Sillett – a world-renowned old-growth forest canopy researcher from Humboldt State University – came to Mitteldorf Preserve to climb and study the large ancient redwood across from the lodge.

Sillett’s team has been asking questions about redwoods and giant sequoias for decades, and have been building a dataset that spans across the redwood range with different precipitation patterns, elevations, stand characteristics, and their distance from the coast. Looking back through time, they’ve developed insights about these trees and how they are responding to climate change, drought, fire and logging so that we can improve how we manage and conserve these forests.

Steve helped popularize a modified arborist climbing technique now used by researchers from across the globe that does not damage the tree. Using this method, researchers venture high into trees to take crown measurements and core samples.

The tip of the core sample taken by the team dates back to the 12th century, yet there was approximately 57 centimeters more to go to the center of the tree. Based on formulas created from the extensive tree mapping they have done, Steve Sillett’s experts estimate that the seedling would date back to the 8th century (+/-30 years). This means the tree was a seedling in 734 AD! The redwood is at least 1286 years old and that makes Mitteldorf Preserve the home of the oldest known redwood tree in Monterey County.

The tree is 224 feet tall, and since the crown occupies over 16,500 cubic meters of space, it is also the largest tree south of the Santa Cruz Mountains. That's the equivalent to the volume of over 300 (mid-sized 25’ long) school buses!

They calculated that the tree has 500 million needles with a needle surface area that would cover 1.2 acres. This gives you a sense of how much capacity this amazing giant has to combat climate change by pulling carbon out of the air and locking it up in its body.

They also found evidence in the tree that it was spike-climbed in 1923 and someone had very carefully and expertly removed dozens of dead branches from the crown. This redwood was particularly impervious to recent droughts and the Soberanes fire that scorched its base and remains steady.

Steve's research demonstrates that these old large trees have an outsized role when it comes to carbon sequestration and they are consistently making more wood year over year when compared to second growth forests (which are forests that have regrown from a previous timber harvest). The rate of productivity doesn't decline as the tree ages. In fact in most cases it keeps increasing as the tree grows right up until its eventual death.

There is a lot more to this research, but identifying these trends and deepening our understanding of redwood growth potential in forests of different ages and levels of disturbance is really exciting for improving the stewardship of these trees.

The next time you're out at Mitteldorf standing under the towering tree, think about all the fires, storms, wild things, people, dramas, and stories that it has experienced. You may even take a moment to reflect on how that makes you feel about your own life.

Check out the video above or by clicking here to experience a rare flight up and over this magnificent sentinel of the forest.