October 1, 2013 /
Marty Frye

Tree of the Month: Dawn Redwood

An ancient tree from the “dawn” of time, the Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) is called by plant enthusiasts “a living fossil.” The tree was first revealed to Western horticulturalists through archaeological observation in the early 1940’s. Believed to be a long extinct species, the tree was discovered only shortly thereafter in a rural village of the Sichuan province in China. It wasn’t long before researchers deduced some of the more amazing facts of this species. The dawn redwood dates as far back as one of the oldest trees of our time, to the age of the dinosaurs. In fact, archaeological evidence suggests that the tree covered much of the earth in that era. But the times they have a-changed and dawn redwood has been reduced to a critically small natural range in a few patches of forest in China. It seems that dawn redwood likes to grow right where Chinese farmers like to grow rice. In the wild, dawn redwood is a critically endangered species.

Dawn Redwood has the honor of being closely related to some of our most valued and revered trees here in North America: the Coast Redwood and the giant Sequoia. Claiming the record for tallest and most massive trees of the world, respectively, and also hailing from an ancient time, the trees are good company and they make the dawn redwood seem a little more at home in this land. The Dawn Redwood is also a close relative and look-alike to the Bald Cypress, lesser known than the Western redwoods but an equally cherished tree here in southeastern United States.

Recognized for its unique heritage, seed of the dawn redwood was quickly disseminated to universities and arboretums for preservation. It was probably not known at the time that this tree would become a horticultural sensation! It has a very reliable pyramidal form that makes an attractive silhouette in the winter. You will never need to prune a Dawn Redwood to get this lovely form. Its feathery flattened-needle foliage is deciduous and makes for nice fall color. When mature, the trunk is fluted and bears soft stringy strips of bark similar to cypress or cedar. Despite its inability to compete well in the wild in our time, the dawn redwood is a hardy species that grows quickly and easily. It is tolerant of air pollution and well-suited to urban areas. It needs sufficiently moist soils and can tolerate standing water even.

Some ecologically-minded horticulturalists say that best way to preserve an endangered species is to share it. In a time when the natural and built landscape of earth is changing rapidly and we find ourselves needing to reevaluate our relationship to nature, one can find solace in the simple act of planting and tending to a tree that very nearly went extinct. The Dawn Redwood is a charismatic tree that now grows happily across the District in residents’ yards and at the National Arboretum.

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