Life finds a way! This time-traveling species is a fluke of nature and testament to survival.
Awbury’s featured tree this month isn’t thought of as a native species, although technically it is. We’d just need to go back 50 – 100 million years to when dinosaurs roamed the earth, when it enjoyed a wide range in our area and across the continent as a whole (Europe, too). Archaeologists had ID’d it in fossils but no one had seen one alive until 1941, when a University Professor in Japan thought he had discovered a new genus of conifer.
Wrong! He had found a Dawn Redwood, a distant relative to our Giant and Coast Redwoods — a tree thought to be extinct for 5+ million years. Fast forward to the Szechwan province of China, 1944: a forester reported a small grove of Dawn Redwoods in a rice paddy. A follow-up expedition in 1946 confirmed about 1,000 of these ancient trees intermingled with other hardwoods in protected, isolated groves.
Harvard University immediately sent their best tree people (and armed guards!) over to collect four pounds of seed to bring home to Boston. From there, Dawn Redwoods spread to botanic gardens and universities across the world including Philadelphia’s Morris Arboretum where descendants of that primordial forest still grow today.
Dawn Redwoods are now popular ornamental trees in the US and all over the world, but in nature they are exceedingly rare: just a few small, scattered strands are left in China. Human encroachment seems destined to crowd out this noble prehistoric holdover. Such a shame – you’d think a tree with so much going for it would have an easier time not going extinct.
For starters, Dawn Redwoods are “monecious,” which means they can self-pollinate. They’re also resistant to pests and disease, fast-growing, long-lived, low-maintenance, and on top of this quite lovely to look at. They grow tall, straight, and symmetric with fern-like and feathery foliage — bright green, dotted with tasty seeds that squirrels and other small mammals enjoy.
Unlike the other two Redwoods which are evergreen, the Dawn Redwood is deciduous. Its needles turn a brilliant shade of copper every fall before shedding, leaving behind a conical lacework of bare branches around a thick, ridged trunk that strikes a distinctive silhouette against the winter sky.
The wood of this tree is also unique: richly colored in hues of reddish-brown, often with streaks of wine or chocolate. Its grain is generally straight with appealing wavy/interlocking patterns, and it’s got a pleasantly coarse texture that’s easy to work with. Dawn Redwood lumber is also considered a sustainable choice, as it is widely and ecologically cultivated. And it’s a LIVING FOSSIL! Hard to think of a better conversation-starter about your new kitchen cabinets.
🌲Dawn Redwood: Five Fast Facts🌲
- In 1847 a German botanist named Stephen Endlicher coined the generic term “sequoia” for all redwoods, presumably in honor of the great Cherokee Indian Chief Sequoya (1760 – 1843), who invented an “alphabet” of 86 symbols for their language. His creation helped the Cherokee preserve their language and cultural traditions and remain united amid the encroachment of Euro-American society into their territory.
- Three Dawn Redwoods are part of Strawberry Fields, a landscaped section in New York City’s Central Park dedicated to Beatle John Lennon.
- The Chinese refer to the tree as a water fir or water pine because it grows in lower areas near water sources.
- Dawn Redwoods lush, dense growth is a vital source of winter shelter for songbirds, deer, and small critters of all kinds.
- The tallest Dawn Redwood in the US (measuring almost 148 feet) is right here in PA at Longwood Gardens! It was planted in the late 1940s/early 1950s, which makes it about 75 years old.
MUCH MORE in author and expert Dan Sardaro’s original article on Awbury’s blog, including the location of some prime Dawn Redwood specimens you can find at the Arboretum. Year of Trees is proudly featured every month in The Local paper (and summarized here in this post).
Dan is a novice birder and author of Awbury’s 2022 “Year of Birds” series, 2018 series on Pollinators, “From Wasps to Wind” and 2019’s series on natural fibers. (He is also a former Awbury Arboretum intern.) Read last month’s Local article here.
The Arboretum’s beautiful grounds are open FREE to the public from dawn to dusk, 365 days a year. Maps available for self-guided tours at the main office, located in the Francis Cope House (Tues – Thurs, 10AM – 4PM or by appointment). Dogs on leash welcome — except not in the garden beds, please. Also available as a unique event venue. Learn more at awbury.org; follow on Facebook and Instagram.