Dr. Bill Libby knows it’s an important tree to the world, and, given his credentials, that is really saying something.
After all, Libby is a professor emeritus of forestry and genetics at the University of California-Berkeley, who has traveled the world for decades planting forestry projects and teaching at prestigious institutions all about the subject.
He is on the short list of world experts regarding sequoia and redwood trees, but there is one tree that he was in awe of when he first saw it: A giant sequoia located in Manistee, Michigan.
Yes, you read that correctly: Michigan. Not exactly a place you might expect to find a sequoia.
And yet, there is a thriving, giant sequoia tree located in the far north, in an area that can best be described as a frozen tundra during the winter.
“Any giant sequoia surviving, and particularly any thriving, at or near the then-known edge of its potential range, provides an important data point as we consider where to possibly plant this species as climate changes,” Libby said.
At its last measurement in 2016, the tree was measured at more than 100 feet tall, said David Milarch, co-founder of the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive, based in Copemish, Michigan, roughly 40 minutes northeast of Manistee.
The tree is perched on a cliff along Lake Michigan at the Lake Bluff Bird Sanctuary, which is owned by Michigan Audubon, and is actually one of three sequoias there. The other two are simply smaller, and just don’t receive the same attention.
“They are still pretty magnificent -- just not as big,” said Gloria Savory, the secretary at the Lake Bluff Bird Sanctuary.
The main tree is 72 years old. It was planted in 1949 by Gertrude and Edward Gray.
The Grays went to Northern California and brought back six sequoia seedlings to Michigan, but only three survived. Still, the fact that three did survive and one has grown as big as it has, is a marvel of nature.
The trees have been able to not only survive, but take off because of their proximity to Lake Michigan, which provides natural insulation that keeps the trees warm during the winter and cooler during the summer.
Their mere presence is a game-changer when it comes to the existence of sequoias on the planet.
In 2009, Libby visited the biggest of the Michigan sequoias with Milarch, who said Libby didn’t hold back when talking about the tree’s importance.
“He said this might be one of the more important sequoias on Earth, because if it can handle this kind of cold and be this far north, they could be cloned around the world,” Milarch said.
There are sequoia trees around the world, but they are most common in Northern California due to climate and their proximity to the Sierra Nevada mountains, which produce a dry heat that allows the trees’ cones to open and release seeds.
Tourists around the world flock to places like Sequoia National Park to view the gigantic trees, and in particular, a tree called “General Sherman,” which is the largest sequoia in the world at 275 feet.
But while General Sherman might the largest sequoia in sheer size, the one in Michigan is likely the biggest in terms of importance for what it could do for the growth of sequoias around the world.
“It is common for people to hold massive giant sequoias in awe, no matter where they are growing,” Libby said. “As the Manistee sequoias grow larger and larger, they will likely attract a local fan base that will defend them against anyone or any organization that wants to kill them.”