With a narrow range stretching for about 450 miles, from Big Sur to southern Oregon, coast redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) are the tallest living beings in the world — and one in particular surpasses them all. Named after a titan in Greek mythology and found in California’s Redwood National Park, Hyperion stands 380 feet tall. That’s 65 feet taller than London’s Big Ben and 10 feet taller than the previous record holder, another coast redwood.
A redwood’s size is only one of its many fascinating features. Their root systems are relatively shallow (only 6–12 feet deep), but can grow more than 100 feet outward from the trunk, giving them stability against heavy winds and flooding. They’re also old — really old — with some redwoods alive today estimated at more than 2,000 years old. That means they were around during the Roman Republic (sempervirens means “always flourishing,” after all). In fact, their age may be one reason these trees can grow so tall. And today, redwoods are more important than ever, because they soak up more CO2 than any other tree on Earth. A typical coast redwood removes 250 tons of carbon from the atmosphere during its lifetime, compared to just one ton for a typical tree. That’s why scientists are now finding ways to clone some of the oldest coast redwoods that have ever lived, in the hopes of combating climate change.
In 1847, Austrian botanist Stephan Endlicher decided that redwoods were a different genus than originally believed, so he gave them a new scientific name. Today, many believe he was inspired by the Cherokee polymath Sequoyah (circa 1775-1843), who created the Cherokee writing system, thus giving his people the same “talking leaves” — or words on paper — that Europeans used. Sequoyah likely never laid eyes on what would one day be his namesake, but like Sequoia sempervirens, he remains a towering figure in history.