I had the chance to visit the Bennett Juniper, the largest western juniper currently living. The tree is located in the Stanislaus National Forest, approximately 12 miles on back roads from highway 108, east of Sonora, CA. The Forest Service has a handout which provides many details which I will reproduce here:
The Bennett Juniper (Juniperus Occidentalis) is named after Clarence Bennett, a naturalist who devoted himself to the study of this specific species. It is, indeed, the biggest western juniper in existence. It ranks 14th in points among all champion trees, according to the folks who maintain the National Register of Big Trees. Only seven known trees have a greater girth.
Although located in the Stanislaus National Forest, The Bennett Juniper is situated on private property, owned and maintained by the Save-The-Redwoods League by way of a donation from the land’s original owner, Joe Martin. Mr. Martin donated the tree site and three acres surrounding it to the Nature Conservancy in 1978. The job of protecting the Bennett has since been passed on to Save-The-Redwoods.
The Bennett Juniper was last measured in 1983. Its circumference (at the 4 1/2-foot mark) is 480 inches, average diameter approximately 13 feet; it is 86 feet in height with a 58-foot crown spread. It scored a total of 581 points when rated by the National Register of Big Trees. Its red, fibrous bark resembles a coastal redwood. The gnarled, knotted branches sport a carpet of lichen on top and reach out to small, shrub-like green leaves.
Experts have been arguing over the age of the tree for quite some time. Most estimates date the tree from 3,000-6,000 years old. Recent dendrochronology tests performed by tree experts now date the tree at closer to 3,000 years of age, roughly the same age as another giant, but dead, western juniper found in the same vicinity of high granite country. That tree, known as the Schofield Juniper, was already as old as the Bennett when it died 800 years ago.
A significant number of folks who know trees maintain that the Bennett is the oldest living champion tree-period. They cite the example of a branch some three inches in diameter, examined after it dropped from the main part of the tree. It contained 550 annual rings. They postulate that it took 700 to 1,000 years for the tree to add just the outer foot of its thirteen-foot diameter.
The Bennett Juniper is located in the Stanislaus National Forest in Tuolumne County, California. Just off Highway 108, the Bennett is accessible via eagle Meadow Road (Forest Service Road 5N01.)
The Bennett receives about 1,500 visitors each year, visitors who have to make an effort just to be able to see the old giant. In order to get to the tree, visitors must ford two streams in the process of traversing twelve miles of Forest roads, the first five miles of which are paved, the last seven becoming increasingly bumpy and narrow until you see a tiny vertical green sign with an even smaller arrow reading “juniper” and arrive at the driveway that leads onto the Save-The-Redwoods property.
When you get there, you’ll likely be met by a gentleman named Ken Brunges, who acts as the Save-The-Redwoods representative and caretaker to the Bennett. In the summer of 2007 Ken marked his 19th year of attending to this giant.
Ken has made many improvements to the trail and the immediate area surrounding the tree, such as hauling in native rock for the pathway and installing wooden benches for the comfort of visitors. Best of all, he provides many of the answers to the many questions about the Bennett Juniper.
It was a pleasure to meet Ken, a 60-something-year-old man who has a camp consisting of two tents, two dogs and a large pile of firewood. He answered many of my questions which included: what is the most ridiculous car that you ever saw make it all the way here? To which he replied: “a Porsche; he made it fine, but I think it took them a couple hours.” The path and benches are nice, but I was disappointed that one had to trudge through brush to walk all the way around the tree.
The tree’s size and majesty are hard to comprehend from seeing photographs alone. It was quite interesting to get to see the tree up close. Although the trunk is basically straight, almost all of the branches are a twisty gnarled mess of loops and odd angled protrusions. The winter snow and wind seem to combine to kill the cambium on the top of the branches as they age, leaving the bottom of the branch alive to grow around the top. As I have seen in the past, while there are sections of the deadwood that are bleached white, the color variation ranges into yellow, orange and then gets even more interesting as certain kinds of lichen colonize the deadwood.
I wholeheartedly encourage everyone to seek out this and other magnificent trees and to really examine them; it will provide you with instruction as well as inspiration in how to make good bonsai.