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Redwoods, California, Billy Huynh, Unsplash

The tree that came back from the dead

Tree correspondent Joan Taylor-Rowan discovers a tree that caused a sensation back in the 1940s.

Latin name: Metasequoia glyptostroboides
Common name: Dawn redwood
Location: lower park near the stream, Alexandra Park

In 1946, Professor Cheng, China’s most famous tree expert, got news that some mysterious, unidentified trees had been found in a remote part of Southern China by a local forest worker. He sent an expedition out to the mountainous region to establish the exact location of the tree cluster, and collect samples for verification. Local villagers knew these trees were special, they had been laying votive offerings at the base of the “water firs” for years.

Extensive tests showed it to be the Metasequoia glyptostroboides – the dawn redwood, alive and well. Related to the giant sequoias of northern California the discovery of this fossil tree, thought to be extinct for more than 5 million years, caused a sensation. With so many bleak stories of flora and fauna lost forever, it made headline news. Botanists the world over rushed to China to see it. The director of Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum, organised a seed collecting expedition and more than a kilo of the tiny seeds were distributed to botanic gardens across the world.

Extinct since the time of the dinosaurs, Mehmet Turgut Kirkgoz, Unsplash

However, the Botanic Garden at Cambridge got some directly from China, via a botanist working for the British Council, and these were planted in 1949 on the south-western edge of the Lake at the university. It was the first dawn redwood to grow on British soil since the dinosaurs roamed.

It was judged one of the 50 ‘Great British Trees’ in honour of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 2002 and features in Thomas Pakenham’s book, Meetings with Remarkable Trees.  It measured 1.5m tall at the time of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation, and reached 23 metres by the time of the Golden Jubilee, 50 years later. The dawn redwood can grow up to 100 feet tall, sometimes growing as much as 2’ per year. Given this growth rate – it’s not one for the balcony, but compared to its giant Californian cousins, it’s a tiddler at 100′ and can be used in landscaping in public parks and large estates.

This tree is unusual in another way too, it is a deciduous conifer – it sheds its needles in the autumn. It is pyramid-shaped with a wide base and a ridged sinuous trunk. The branches are covered in ferny light green needles and in autumn they turn a brownish dawn pink hence the common name.

Dawn Redwood, Alexandra Park Hastings, Peter King

In the wild, the dawn redwood is now restricted to just a few small isolated stands in Hubei and Szechuan and is classed as ‘critically endangered’. Its habitat is threatened by rice cultivation, and so the chance of it surviving and propagating in the wild are slim, but at least there are now many domesticated trees throughout the world as a result of the sharing of those seeds in the 1940s.

So, why am I telling you about this tree? We are lucky enough to have an example of it in Alexandra Park. Easily spotted, it stands in the lower park next to the stream – they like moist locations (hence its local name “the water fir”). Its pyramidal shape and ridged trunk make it very distinctive.  When you find it, give it a gentle hug – after all how often do you meet a tree that’s come back from the dead?

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Posted 09:17 Tuesday, Jun 28, 2022 In: Green Times

Also in: Green Times

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