Where High Sierras meet Balkans
Bulgaria may be famous for many things but sequoias is apparently not one of them. Think again. If you know where to look you will discover a number of wonderful redwoods that will make your head swirl: Am I in the Sierra Nevadas, the natural habitat of the world's largest and tallest trees, or am I in the eastern Balkans?
The curious case of Bulgaria's sequoias started in the late 19th century when a few enthusiasts imported redwood seeds and planted them in various locations, mainly for aesthetic purposes.
The sequoias, or Sequoioideae, are a subfamily of coniferous trees native to coastal California and Oregon. This is where the world's oldest and biggest redwoods can be found. They have been cordoned off in national and state parks, and visitors have to pay a fee to see General Sherman and the Giant Forest. Sequoias are generally thought of as the world's largest living organisms, next to whales. But, unlike whales, they can live for over 2,000 years. This means some older trees must have sprouted in New Testament times.
Though sequoias and redwoods are technically different, the two words are usually used interchangeably.
The Big Three: 19th century redwoods in a sequoia grove near the village of Bogoslov, Kyustendil
Through the centuries redwoods have been exported and can now be found grown horticulturally in China, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, the UK and elsewhere. What nature enthusiasts usually fail to notice is that giant redwoods can sometimes pop up where you expect them least.
Take the Boyana Church located in a southern neighbourhood of Sofia. Visiting it and looking at its frescoes, which Bulgarians proudly declare kicked off the Renaissance, is obligatory for anyone who has come to the Bulgarian capital even for a short time. Medieval icon painting aside, visitors will be stunned to see some tall redwoods growing just by the Eastern Orthodox church, now a museum. How come?
In 1912 the residents of Boyana, then a village, decided to knock off their old church and build a new one. The then wife of the Bulgarian King Ferdinand, Eleonora, pleaded with them not to, and donated a significant amount of money from the Royal Civil List to buy a new plot of land and erect a modern church on it. The old Boyana church was promptly restored. Ferdinand, by birth a minor German royalty who had been installed monarch of the Bulgarians in 1887 (and abdicated in 1918 as a result of this country's disastrous involvement in the First World War), was known for his interest in the natural sciences. A keen botanist, entomologist and stamp collector, among many other things – including being bisexual – Ferdinand was a prominent bon vivant who had four wives and sired a number of illegitimate children. He donated much of the money allocated to him by the Bulgarian parliament to set up public parks and museums. The current Museum of Natural History in Sofia, which has on display King Ferdinand's collections of butterflies, was one of his workings. Some others include Sofia's first zoo, the Royal Station of Entomology and the building of the maritime aquarium in Varna. In Boyana, when it became clear that the medieval church would be preserved, Ferdinand planted several sequoias.
A redwood in the yard of the Seven Thrones monastery near Sofia
They are there to this day. Obviously, not as tall as their Californian counterparts (because they were planted at the beginning of the 19th century, not at the beginning of the first millennium AD), they stand proudly next to the Orthodox church, a marvel of Bulgarian medieval architecture and art. Queen Eleonora was buried under them when she died in 1917. Her modest tomb is still there though it was vandalised after the Communists took over in 1944.
King Ferdinand is responsible for other sequoias still standing in Bulgaria, not just the Boyana church ones. German, a village near Sofia, has had a monastery since the 10th century. It has never been particularly large or particularly remarkable except for the several redwood trees planted by King Ferdinand when his first sons were born. Boris was born in 1894 and his brother, Kiril, came the following year. Ferdinand and his then wife, Princess Maria Louisa of Bourbon-Parma, promptly named the trees Boris and Kiril. Boris became king after Ferdinand's abdication, and remained on the throne until his death in 1943. His son and heir apparent, Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, lived most of his life in exile in Spain, but returned to Bulgaria in the late 1990s. He was elected prime minister in 2001.
Pirdop railway station
Sequoias grow in other Bulgarian monasteries unrelated to the royal family. Usually they were planted by pilgrims who wanted to leave a mark after their visit. A tall redwood stands in front of the main church of the Seven Thrones Monastery near the River Iskar Gorge. And a sequoia 6m in diameter used to stand just by the church of the Lopushanski Monastery in the northwest. It was planted there by an overzealous pilgrim who never thought the tree would grow to such dimensions that its root system would endanger the foundations of the church. It did – and the sequoia was chopped off in 2017. Its 2-meter-tall stump was recently sculpted into a rather eccentric figure of an Orthodox saint.
A peculiar collection of several sequoias was planted in the 1930s in front of the railway station in Pirdop east of Sofia. The redwoods are still there – and the sign announcing "Pirdop" is nailed to one of them. In recent years some railway employees decided to "beautify" them by axing some branches off the huge trees.
The trunk of a sequoia supposedly planted around the time of Jesus Christ is in the Museum of Natural History in London
Lone sequoias can be found all over Bulgaria: in Veliko Tarnovo's central square, called Mother Bulgaria, in Burgas's maritime park and so on.
If you want to see this country's only genuine arboretum of sequoias you have to head west of Sofia, to the town of Kyustendil on the way to the border with North Macedonia. By a village curiously named Bogoslov, meaning Theologian, there is a redwood grove that could easily be placed on the western slopes of the Sierras rather than in Ücbunar, Bulgaria. The trees, some of which are now over 30m tall, were planted 130 years ago by a local forester, Yordan Mitrev. Mitrev, who died in 1938, was a dedicated environmentalist whose work in planting groves to ward off erosion was known all over Bulgaria. The grateful citizens of Kyustendil honoured him with a bust, which can still be seen in front of the local (over-restored) medieval fort.
A giant sequoia in Tuolumne Grove in Yosemite National Park, California
Vibrant Communities: Spotlight on Bulgaria's Living Heritage is a series of articles, initiated by Vagabond Magazine, with the generous support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, that aims to provide details and background of places, cultural entities, events, personalities and facts of life that are sometimes difficult to understand for the outsider in the Balkans. The ultimate aim is the preservation of Bulgaria's cultural heritage – including but not limited to archaeological, cultural and ethnic diversity. The statements and opinionsexpressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners