Guest blog – A Question of Importance by Ian Parsons.

Ian Parsons spent twenty years working as a Ranger with the Forestry Commission, where he not only worked with birds of prey and dormice, but where he developed his passion for trees.  Now a freelance writer, Ian runs his own specialist bird tour company leading tours to Extremadura.  For more details see

Ian’s new book, A Tree Miscellany, is out now on Amazon and will be reviewed here on Sunday morning.

You can access all Ian’s Guest blogs on this site through the Guest Blog Archive – click here.

A Question of Importance

Recently I watched a documentary on the natural history of North America.  As part of the film, they showed the magnificent groves of the world’s tallest tree, the Coast Redwood.  It was a good watch, packed full of stunning shots and punchy statements such as “the tallest living organisms on the planet”.  But (you knew it was coming!), like so many other programs and books before it, they forgot to ask a question.  It is an important question; it is also a simple one.


When we were children, we would ask the question all the time, whenever an adult made a bold statement, the first response would be “Why?”.  Yet now, as adults, we tend to not ask it, almost as if we are embarrassed to do so.  Instead, we just seem to accept the bold statements without question.  Well, most of us do, I never have, much to the annoyance of lecturers and then successive line managers…

Yes, Coast Redwoods are the tallest trees on the planet.  Have you ever considered why?  I have led many, many groups on tree themed walks, I’ve run workshops and given talks on them, and on each and everyone, I have posed the question, “Why are Coast Redwoods the tallest trees in the world?”  My audiences have ranged from primary school pupils to post graduates, from the WI to ecological societies, you can imagine that I have had many different answers and I am sure, as you are reading this, some of those same answers are in your mind right now.

General answers like, ‘The climate/soils/geography of the area are just right for the tree’ or more specific answers relating to root structures or the frequent water bearing fogs that often enclose the branches, even flippant answers such as ‘It just is!’  All of these answers are good, but they are wrong.  They are missing the fundamentally obvious.

Only once did someone answer my question correctly and that someone was a child, part of a primary school visit to look at trees.  I asked the question and the child replied, “Because we haven’t cut it down yet”.  That sounds facetious, and the teachers instantly slapped him down (verbally of course!), but it is absolutely correct.  Coast Redwoods are the tallest trees in the world only because we haven’t felled them.  Coast Redwoods are the tallest trees in the world because of us.

Don’t get me wrong, the Coast Redwoods of western America are magnificent, awe inspiring trees, but they shouldn’t be the tallest trees in the world.  That epithet should belong to either the Douglas Fir or the Mountain Ash Eucalyptus (both of which are examples of poor English nomenclature, but I will save that for another time).  It is these trees that should be the tallest in the world.  The reason they are not is because we cut them down.

Until January 2016, the tallest tree in the world was thought to be a Coast Redwood named Hyperion that measures a staggering 115m tall (or, if you prefer, 379ft).  Last January it was reported that a taller Coast Redwood had been found, this one measuring in at around 118m (just under 390ft).  Imagining something that tall is hard to do. Those heights dwarf Big Ben and St. Pauls cathedral, but they don’t dwarf the heights reached by Douglas Fir and the Eucalypt.  Felled specimens of these trees have measured 132m (433ft) for the Mountain Ash Eucalyptus and a completely staggering 142m (465ft) for Douglas Fir.  There were many more with heights over 120 metres tall, but they have all been felled.  Sadly, for the latter two species, we value their timber much more than that of the Coast Redwood and that is the simple reason why the Coast Redwood is now the tallest tree in the world.

The tallest Douglas Firs and Mountain Ash Eucalypts today are both around 100m tall, it is likely that after another 100 years or so they will be able to once again reclaim the title that is rightly theirs.  That is, if we let them.  The pressure to fell these arboreal leviathans is immense, even with the less economically valued Coast Redwoods.  It has been estimated that since 1850 95% of the old growth Coast Redwood trees have been felled, if you think that this felling mainly happened a hundred years or more ago and is not something that happens now, you would be wrong, read the ‘Legacy of Luna’ by Julia Butterfly Hill to find out more.

There are many bold statements bounded about in conservation, we are sometimes questioning of some, but the majority are just accepted.  Coast Redwoods are the tallest trees in the world, but until you read this, had you ever asked why.  The simplest of questions should be the easiest of things to ask, but we often forget to do so, we shouldn’t and we mustn’t.


10 Replies to “Guest blog – A Question of Importance by Ian Parsons.”

  1. Thanks Ian, for that clever line on tallness. I went well wide of the mark – too much width somewhere – unlike that laterally clued up kid.
    We need more of them.

    1. Thanks Murray, it is funny how we as adults often over think things to come up with answers, whilst children just say it as they see it. Bet that child would have excelled at a Natural History GCSE!

  2. Yet another cracking feature Ian, many thanks. We should have a hell of a lot more big trees, but this just isn’t happening. ‘The Wild Trees’ by Robert Preston (I think) is a fantastic book about the world’s biggest trees, past and present, and those who try to find and protect them, it opened my eyes to how many other species should be equalling redwoods in size. This is why I intensely dislike ‘sustainable’ harvesting for no other reason than it is supposedly sustainable. A hundred year old oak cut down to make a garden bench or natty set of drawers isn’t going to become a five hundred year old ancient giant. We should be cutting our consumption to allow as many trees as possible to go through their full life cycle – fat chance it seems. Look at the adverts for solid wood furniture, just because it’s solid wood, helping to drive logging in eastern Europe apparently. So much scope for reduce, reuse, recycle but it’s proponents don’t do nearly enough to promote why it would help the natural world and people.

  3. Hi Ian. I fumbled for an answer and upon learning the reason why these magnificent trees are so tall, embarrassingly revealed my ignorance. In the mountains of the Atlantic Rainforest near Rio de Janeiro there are also trees that are close to a 1000 years old, named Jequitibá (Cariniana legalis), cousin of the Amazonian Brazilnut. They frequently measure 50m in height and up to 7m in diameter. Our botanical hero the German Carl von Martius, the author of Flora Brasiliensis upon seeing these Avatar dimensioned trees back in 1837 could not believe what he saw and the accompanying artist Johann Rugendas drew 13 arm stretched men to brace the tree. Today researchers have revealed that a single tree is almost a unique universe of accumulated animals and epiphytic plants living in perfect harmony. It is important to state that for trees like these in the Neotropics to reach these heights they need to be in communities of adjoining trees and perhaps the next questions why is that so? Equally bewildering, we need to find your student again. Keep up the good work!

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