Dawn redwood: A tree for the new year

By Jean English | Jan 07, 2012
Photo by: Jean English The feathery foliage of dawn redwood can beautify a landscape that has room for this large deciduous tree, known from fossil records to have grown at least 50 million years ago.

The new year is a good time to think about planting an old tree – one so old that it was virtually unknown until fossils of it were found in 1941. The dawn redwood, Metasequoia glyptostroboides, was then thought to be extinct, until Asian botanists found the tree growing in a secluded part of Sichuan Province in central China. Harvard University botanists then visited the area and, in 1944, took seeds of the tree to the United States.

The tree was propagated and planted at the Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain, Mass., and a specimen from there was later planted on Beatrix Farrand’s Reef Point estate in Bar Harbor. From there, in 1956, the tree was moved to Thuya Garden in Northeast Harbor – a long trek for a species shown through fossils to have grown 50 million years ago in Japan.

Since then the tree has been propagated and is available from many sources, including Fedco Trees (fedcoseeds.com/trees), the Arbor Day Foundation (arborday.org) and, sometimes, from local nurseries.

The tree is well worth planting if you have a space that can accommodate, ultimately, a 70- to 100-foot-tall (or more) specimen that will spread to about 25 feet. Among its assets are the reddish-brown bark that becomes grooved and fluted with age, “like something out of a fairy tale,” says Fedco Trees; its neat pyramidal shape (possibly opening up over time); the feathery, bright green needles that turn orange and fall from the tree in autumn (this is one of the few deciduous conifers); its ease of transplanting; tolerance to pollution, wet or occasionally dry soils (although it prefers a deep, moist, well-drained, acid soil and full sun; and it needs moist soil to become established); and hardiness – to Zone 4.

Dawn redwoods also grow fast – up to four feet per year and reaching 50 feet in about 20 years. They do not, however, tolerate salt spray or runoff from road deicing.

The tree may have something to offer Maine’s forestry industry, too.

Richard Jagels, a forest biologist with the University of Maine, quoted in the March-April 2005 issue of UMaine Today Magazine (magarchive.umaine.edu/issues/v5i2/arctic), said that the fast growth of dawn redwood, its ability to grow in same-species groves and to grow on nutrient-poor, acidic soils, and the light weight and moderate resistance of the wood to rotting, make it ideal for tree plantations – for lumber, composites or fiber. Its tolerance to a range of conditions should be useful given our changing climate.

In the landscape, Michael Dirr, in his "Manual of Woody Landscape Plants," says that dawn redwood is “a very lovely ornamental well suited to parks, golf courses and other large areas; would make a very effective screen, grouping or for use in lining long drives or streets; where it can be grown without problem of freeze damage it should be given adequate consideration; excellent in groves, along streams or lakes….”

Dirr does note that as far north as Orono, the top is often killed back; but trees I have seen in Searsmont and Northeast Harbor are doing great, so this year I plan to bring this fossil tree back to life in my own landscape.

Comments (0)
If you wish to comment, please login.