Scientific name: Metasequoia glyptostroboides
Plant type: Deciduous conifer
Environment: Full sun, moist, well-drained soil
Uses: Specimen plant
The dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) is considered a living fossil. Having once been thought to be extinct, the species was discovered in China in the 1940s. A deciduous conifer, dawn redwoods are a striking year-round addition to the garden.
Metasequoia glyptostroboides was found in the fossil record in 1941 by a Japanese paleobotanist, Shigeru Miki, who gave the genus its name and determined that the species had a wide distribution across the Northern Hemisphere millions of years ago. Around the same time a Chinese forester, Chan Wang, collected material from a tree in Sichuan Province believed to be Glyptostrobus pensilis, a fairly common tree in the region at the time. It wasn’t until this material was reviewed by botanists Wan-Chun Cheng and Hsen-Hen Hu, that it was determined to be a new species entirely. Soon after, the connection was made between the fossils and the living plants. Excitement for this discovery was high and seed collecting trips were undertaken to introduce the species into collections around the world. Seeds and seedlings from these collections were sent from the Arnold Arboretum and other institutions to botanic gardens and arboreta around the world and can still be seen in many of these collections. Today you can find dawn redwoods throughout the San Francisco Botanical Garden and the Japanese Tea Garden.
There are a limited number of dawn redwoods in the wild and the species is considered endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN)’s Red List. As of the last assessment of the species, it was only known from 18 locations in southeast China and these populations are highly fragmented. In the past the species was cleared to make way for iron smelting and today the species is primarily threatened by habitat loss. Despite these challenges in the wild, Metasequoia glyptostroboides is very popular in cultivation.
The fast-growing dawn redwood is a wonderful addition to the garden. In the spring and summer, the tree is covered in soft, light green needles. Unlike most conifers, which often are evergreen, Metasequoia glyptostroboides is deciduous, losing its needles seasonally. Before it drops its needles, they will turn a brilliant hue of orange and yellow. Finally in the winter, without needles, one can appreciate the architecture of these conical trees and their shaggy cinnamon colored bark.
Featured Plant Contributors: Text, profile, and photos Victoria Stewart