A Giant in Our Midst
There is a tree in Visalia that is truly special. It stands in the heart of downtown, but few notice it, and those that do, probably don’t realize how significant it is. Why would anyone pay attention to this ordinary looking evergreen with presumably nothing noteworthy about it? But soon, sharing its history and location will change all of that, and this baby giant sequoia standing on post office property, will have celebrity status once again.
Giant sequoias are almost exclusively found growing naturally on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada, usually between 4,000 and 7,000 feet in elevation. Visalia’s planted tree, an obvious exception, is growing at 330 feet above sea level.
The scientific name of the giant sequoia, Sequoiadendron giganteum, can sometimes be confused with the Sequoia sempervirens, or more commonly called coastal redwood. Both start life as tiny seeds about the size of a flake of oatmeal, but can grow to be huge. The coastal version is concentrated in a narrow strip along the Pacific Coast of North America and can grow to amazing heights. In fact, they are recognized as the tallest living thing, while the giant sequoias are recognized as the most massive living things by volume. But despite its shorter stature than its coastal cousin, the giant sequoia can still grow to more than 300 feet high.
So how did this sequoia get to Visalia? In the winter of 1936, Guy Hopping, Superintendent of General Grant National Park (later expanded and in 1940 renamed Kings Canyon National Park), had his winter quarters in Visalia. He shared the recently finished downtown post office at 111 West Acequia with Nathan Levy, Visalia’s postmaster. Sometime that winter, the two men came up with the idea of planting giant sequoias on the post office grounds. Hopping dug up two saplings from Grant Park and carefully wrapped them in burlap with their native soil. He kept the tiny three to four year old trees in the snow within the park, then the two were brought down from the mountains to their new home in Visalia.
On February 18, 1936, the Visalia Times-Delta announced the replanting on the post office grounds. One was planted in the lawn on the east side of the post office building and the other on the west side. At the time, Levy proudly pointed out that he believed Visalia had the only post office in the United States with giant sequoias.
As the years went by, memories of the planting event faded and interest in the two sequoias waned. For some unknown reason, at one point the tree on the east side was removed, leaving the post office with just one tree.
In 2015, as Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks were preparing for an event for the National Park Service’s (NPS) centennial celebration, Suzanne Bianco, director of the Visalia Convention & Visitors Bureau, prepared to highlight Visalia and its connection to the NPS. When she discovered that the post office had a historic sequoia tree on the west lawn, she began thinking about the possibilities of turning the tree and site into an educational feature and attraction. She felt it would further link Visalia to the well-known national parks and solidify Visalia’s status as a gateway city.
In the same year, Bianco presented her ideas for the site to her board of directors and the Visalia City Council, and all liked the idea. She continued to develop the plan, looking for funding possibilities and the important human resources that she would need. She assembled an impressive list of people including Woody Smeck, superintendent of Sequoias & Kings Canyon National Parks, Mark Tilchen, executive director of the Sequoia Parks Conservancy, Kevin McCuster, California Water Service community affairs specialist, Matt Seals, principal of Seals Construction Company, and Kay Hutmacher, landscape architect and a partner at Sierra Designs.
The site plan was complicated and Bianco realized she needed this top tier group of capable people to put the ambitious project together. The plan obviously focused on the historic sequoia tree, but she also wanted the location to serve as an outdoor nature classroom for school children, residents, and visitors, complete with interpretive displays and water-wise landscape. She further wanted to encourage visitation to the nearby national parks and obviously encourage tourism to Visalia, especially the town’s historic downtown. The site will also have smart phone access for visitor information.
Her plan developed and has now gone beyond the “wish list” stage. Kay Hutmacher is finalizing the site design with the help of California Water Service’s landscape consultant, Susan Cordone.
The “star” of the site will obviously be the sequoia tree. Visalia arborist, Steve Halsey, owner of Halsey’s Tree Service, did an assessment and found it to be in “fair” condition. He estimated it to be about 65 feet high and determined the trunk to be about 41 inches in circumference at breast height. He made some recommendations about irrigation, especially during the hot summer months.
Soon site work will begin, and if Bianco has her way, it will be finished this summer. Obviously thrilled about the project, she is looking forward to its completion. “It will be interesting to tourists and locals alike,” she said. She added that with the support of Cal-Water, “We will have a demonstration garden for low water use plants and will show the connection between the Sierra snowpack and the valley.”
For 81 years the historic tree has been part of downtown Visalia. By sequoia standards, it’s a baby, given that these giants can live to be 3,000 years or more. Because it is outside of its natural habitat, the odds of it living that long are slim. But who knows, it already has defied the odds. What we do know is that its years of anonymity will soon be over and its unique place in Visalia history will be known by all.
About $33,000 in cash has been received, thanks especially to California Water Service, the Sequoia Parks Conservancy, and the Tulare County Historical Society. Numerous in-kind services have been donated as well and more donations would be helpful. If you or your organization would like to help support this project and have your name on the site as a donor, contact Suzanne Bianco at the non-profit Visalia Convention & Visitors Bureau, P.O. Box 2734, Visalia, CA 93279. She can also be reached at (559) 334-0141. The website is visitvisalia.org.