It stands in a clearing of its own creation, amid a forest that has somehow not seen the ravages of fire for over four thousand years. They call it the Hollyburn Giant, and though it’s merely a shadow of what it once was, this legendary tree has been estimated to be as old as 1400 years. Sometimes confused with the Hollyburn Fir, this Yellow Cedar grows on the opposite side of Hollyburn Mountain, and at a much higher elevation. It’s one of the many wonders of British Columbia’s Cypress Provincial Park.
In classification, the “Yellow Cedar” is actually a member of the Cypress (Cupressacae) family. Also known as the Alaska Cedar, Nootka Cedar, and Nootka Cypress, its species name refers to Vancouver Island’s Nootka tribe, on whose ancestral lands it was first documented. Over the years, its nomenclature has changed, due to more recent findings in plant genetics. Variously known as Callitropsis Nootkatensis, Xanthocyparis Nootkatenis, and more commonly Chamaecyparis Nootkatensis, it is newly classified as Cupressus Nootkatensis. While all this is basically an ongoing controversy with botanists and tree enthusiasts, all agree that it was never a true cedar.
What’s more important to this tree’s survival are its other characteristics. Found in the Pacific Northwest, from Alaska to Northern California, its exceptional ability to grow in poorly nourished soil and shed snow efficiently have adapted it well to subalpine conditions in most of its range. It generally reaches a maximum height range of thirty to forty metres, and has been known to live a thousand years.
That’s what makes the Hollyburn Giant such a remarkable specimen. When the tree was first studied in the 1980s, it was already an anomaly, in no small part due to its unique habitat. It can be found, roughly, at the confluence of the Strachan Trail and the Old Strachan Trails, in Cypress Provincial Park. To access those trails, you must first hike a stretch of the well known Baden Powell Trail. Within the park, there is a ski resort in operation, and at one time the owners intended on levelling much of the surrounding forest for ski runs, but thankfully, that did not happen.
In the late 1980s, the tree lost much of its height, either due to damage from old age, a storm, or both. It is only about 25 metres tall, with its widest diameter somewhere between eight and nine feet. When I last visited the tree in 2015, the last several reiterations were still showing life with fresh growth, but for years I have known its days were numbered. The remnants of the destroyed upper trunk rest nearby on the forest floor, after all. Recent reports have it that the tree may have finally died, but I’ve yet to confirm that as factual.
In any event, the Hollyburn Giant is one of the most venerable living beings I have had the privilege of meeting. It’s hard to say, really, if another of its kind has ever outlasted it, but in my mind, its value as a historical specimen cannot be argued. If you’re ever in the area, it’s worth a visit, because even should you find it has passed, the forest that surrounds it is unforgettably enchanting!
Just hours after posting this story on the day I published it, a reader who had been to see the tree that same day posted this photo. For all intents and purposes, she could not find any signs of life in it, and it appears to have died. I guess some of the reports I’ve been getting have turned out to be true! In any event, fourteen centuries is a life well lived, but the next great Yellow Cedar is still out there! Who’ll be the one to find it?