“The mountains are calling and I must go.” - John Muir
Visiting magnificent trees in nature such as the Bennett Juniper is an experience I wholeheartedly encourage everyone to seek out. Really examine these trees, as they can provide you with instruction as well as inspiration in how to make good bonsai.
The Bennett Juniper is the Grand Champion Sierra Juniper, the largest Juniper in the world. It’s a Juniperus grandis, the largest species in the world in the juniper genus (formerly Juniperus occidentalis v. Australis) It's registered with American Forests in the National Register of Big Trees. When last measured in 2015, this giant stood at 78 feet tall, with a trunk circumference of 40 feet and a crown spread of 56 feet!
The tree’s size and majesty are hard to comprehend from seeing photographs alone. It's quite interesting to get to see the tree up close. Although the trunk is basically straight, almost all the branches are a twisty gnarled mess of loops, knots, 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. 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 and carpet the deadwood. The branching of the juniper stands in stark contrast to the big formal upright nature of the trunk, with red fibrous bark resembling that of a coastal redwood.
The Forest Service has a handout which provides many details, some of which are reproduced 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. 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.
After decades of arguments from experts over the age of the tree, 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. 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 2022 Ken marks his 34th 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.
I had the pleasure of meeting Ken in 2007, who at the time was a 60-something-year-old man whose camp consisted 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 roads to the Bennett Juniper are only open from mid-June through October, so time your visit carefully! When planning a visit, make sure you take time to stop and admire "Fred and Ginger", two trees that stand together nearby. Though they are two separate trees, the interplay between them reflects an ideal design of a two-tree or double trunk bonsai composition.
I recorded my most recent visit and have posted it to the Bonsaify YouTube Channel. Watch the video to join me and Pedro, our 2022 summer intern, on our adventure in the mountains. If you’re interested in seeing more examples of amazing trees in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, read this article I wrote last year.