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Giant Sequoias Tower Over Albuquerque Homes

ALBUQUERQUE - When Tami Soto and her husband bought their home in Albuquerque's Northeast Heights 12 years ago, they had a 50-foot giant sequoia growing in their backyard. But they didn't know it.

A 50-foot giant sequoia in Albuquerque's Northeast Heights towers above Curtis Smith, a horticulture specialist with New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service. The sequoia, growing in homeowner Tami Soto's backyard, was planted about 30 years ago. (08/05/2002) (NMSU Agricultural Communications Photo by J. Victor Espinoza)

"We thought it was a cork tree, but it was so tall that it caught people's eyes as they drove by, and a few years ago some passersby stopped to see it," Soto said. "That's how we found out it's a giant sequoia."

The huge coniferous tree was planted about 30 years ago as part of an erratic effort by homeowners and some nurseries to establish sequoias around Albuquerque, said Curtis Smith, horticulturist with NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service.

Native to the western slopes of California's Sierra Nevada, giant sequoias there are the largest living organisms in the world. Many trees in the Giant Sequoia National Monument in California stand nearly 300 feet tall and have trunks more than 30 feet in diameter.

California's sequoias captured public attention in July when a huge wildfire near the monument threatened to burn a grove of trees known as the Trail of 100 Giants.
Smith and George Duda, an urban forester with New Mexico's State Forestry Division, are now working to establish giant sequoias in and around Albuquerque as part of a new project involving NMSU's Master Gardeners in Bernalillo County and some homeowners in the East Mountain area.

"The sequoias are famous for size and longevity. Many live more than 2,000 years," Smith said. "That fascinates people, which helps us get homeowners interested in planting them."

Apart from their beauty, sequoias are drought tolerant and adaptable to a wide range of soils and temperatures, allowing them to grow well in New Mexico, Smith said.

"People are always intrigued by exotic trees like giant sequoias, and that fascination is an important aspect of urban forestry," Smith said. "Experimenting with a range of species helps diversify the trees people grow, and we want to encourage that."
Diversity also helps prevent accumulation of too many of one species. "Gardeners need to avoid monoculture, because it increases the chance of losing trees to insects, diseases and weather," Smith said. "Diversity helps assure that some trees will survive."

Promoting tree diversity is crucial in Albuquerque, where a 1995 city ordinance banned all new plantings of juniper, mulberries, cypress, elms and most poplars to cut down on pollen that aggravates allergies, Duda said. That led to many more green ash trees in the city, which are now under attack by bark beetles and borers.

"Diversity makes it harder for the insects to find ash trees," Duda said.

About a dozen giant sequoias survived in Albuquerque from the early plantings decades ago, but many were cut down. "They were planted too close to power lines," Smith said. "People just didn't realize how big they would grow."

This time, Extension and State Forestry are encouraging better planning. Master gardeners who have enough space in their yards have so far planted about 45 sequoia tree seedlings. About 200 more are on order from California.

"We're trying to distribute the trees throughout the Albuquerque area from the South Valley to the Heights," Smith said. "We want to see how well they do in various soil environments to learn more about proper sequoia care in semi-arid conditions."

Some of the trees already are growing rapidly, such as three that Bertha Wirtz, a master gardener in the Northeast Heights, planted five years ago. The seedlings were 22, 24 and 27 inches when she planted them, and now they are 4, 5 and 7.5 feet, respectively.

"I love unusual things, and that's part of the fun of gardening," Wirtz said. "Besides, as you get gray hair, you want fast-growing plants, like the sequoias."