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How the tree was discovered and named:
"...Father Juan Crespe, the Franciscan missionary who was the diarist of the Portola expedition, the first expedition by land up the Pacific Coast, in 1769, recorded the existence of coast redwood trees when he was in the vicinity of the Pahara River in Monterey County. And he used the following words, in translation, of course: "The area is well forested with very high trees of a red color, not known to us. They have a very different leaf from cedars and, although the wood resembles cedar somewhat in color, it is very different and has not the same odor. However, the wood of the trees that we have found is very brittle. In this region there in a great abundance of these trees and because none of the expedition recognizes them they are named redwood for their color." Palo Colorado, of course, in the original Spanish. You remember it was the Portola expedition which also discovered the Palo Alto tree when they reached San Francisco Bay.
But the first collection of the coast redwood seems to have been made by Thadeys Haenke, botanist of the Malaspena expedition in 1791. And it appears there is at least one tree derived from the seed which he went home still growing in Spain. The Malaspena expedition was a Spanish financed expedition but Malaspena, its captain was an Italian, and Haenke, its botanist was a German. The redwood trees from which they collected seed, in all probability, grew near Santa Cruz. And indeed most of the early collection of seed which were sent back to Europe and have given rise to cultivated trees there, were collected in the Santa Cruz area. Nevertheless, it was a Scot, Archibald Menzies, who played the role of botanical discoverer, because it was his specimen sent back to Britain which formed the basis of the botanical description of the coast redwood tree. In 1794, Menzies collected a herbarium specimen and for a long time it was unknown just where the collection was made. The specimen, however, still exists in the British Museum in London and the story is that one day Professor Willis Jepson of the University of California here was looking at that herbarium specimen in the British Museum and he happened to turn the herbarium sheet over and on the back side of the sheet, it said Santa Cruz, Menzie. It seems that through all the years they'd had the sheet, nobody had thought of turning it over. Well, this specimen was carried to Britain in 1795, but a description of it with a botanical name was not given until 1823 when the name was published by a botanist named Lambert. And because the material looked to Lambert like the already known genus taxodium, he called the redwood taxodium sempervirens. It's sometimes thought that the name sempervirens refers to the long life of the tree, which indeed may be upward of 2,000 years. But this is not the case. Lambert, after all, was describing a specimen from a hyberium sheet and he knew nothing of the longevity of the tree. And he was merely concerned to record that the tree was evergreen. Sempervirens meant evergreen in distinction to those taxodium speciea like the bald cypress, taxodium discusum, which are deciduous. The generic name became changed subsequently because a German botanist, Steven Endlicher, recognized that indeed it was not a species of taxodium. And in 1847, he called the coast redwood Sequoia sempervirens, the name which it still hold today."
from Dr. Herbert G. Baker, 1965