Dawn Redwood: 20th Century Botanical Discovery
By Gayle Pille
Not considered a native species to Kentucky, the Dawn Redwood once was a very common tree in our landscape - 50 to 100 million years ago when the dinosaurs roamed.
Fossil records show that Dawn Redwoods were common across the Northern Hemisphere, including North America, Greenland and Europe. Were it not for good luck and perseverance, this living fossil may well have been lost to extinction forever. The story reads like a Nancy Drew mystery.
The Dawn Redwood was first described in Japan in 1941 by Shigeru Miki, who thought he had a discovered the fossils of a tree long since extinct. Then in 1944 a forester with China’s National Central University stumbled upon a small grove of redwoods in the rice paddies of China’s Szechwan Province, not even knowing what they were at the time. Since China was in the midst of war, making study expeditions impossible, these redwoods were pretty much ignored at the time.
Ignored but not forgotten. After the war, Professor Cheng of China’s National Central University sent an expedition to the Szechwan Province in 1946 for a complete study. It was determined that the Dawn Redwood, Metasequoia glyptostroboides, a tree thought to be extinct for more than 5 million years, was indeed ALIVE! About 1,000 Dawn Redwoods were living in very isolated groves in Southeastern China along with birch, chestnut, sweet gum, beech and oak trees.
In 1947 Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum sent another expedition to China to collect seed from these newly discovered redwoods. Despite a government ban, scientists accompanied by armed guards collected four pounds of seed and sent them to Boston. By 1948 this seed was being distributed to botanic gardens and universities across the world, most certainly saving the Dawn Redwood from extinction. Now, 60-plus years later, the beauteous Dawn Redwood is a popular landscape tree here and abroad.
Unfortunately, in nature, the Dawn Redwood is restricted to only a few small and scattered stands in China. The World Conservation Union has classified it as “critically endangered” due to human encroachment.
The Dawn Redwood is a fast growing deciduous tree reaching a height of more than 100-feet with a 25-foot spread. Its leaves are bright green, turning copper in fall before losing them until the following spring. It is unisexual, with male and female flowers on the same tree. Now protected in China, the soft wood was once used for cabinet making.
Dawn Redwoods are one of only three redwoods found in the world. True to their name, Coast Redwoods grow along the Pacific coast from Southern Oregon to Central California. While Giant Sequoias are found in in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains.
- Dawn redwood (Gayle Pille)
- Dawn Redwood, nearly 60 years old, towers above Covington, KY (Jason Gray)
About the Author
Gayle Pille is a local naturalist and nature writer, with regular contributions to the Northern Kentucky Tribune. She is an avid birder and builds and sells handcrafted nest boxes through her company, Woodland Habitat. Email @ email@example.com