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The Dawn Redwood

Thursday, November 17, 2011

photo by Kris H. Macomber

As I walk Mount Auburn Cemetery, there are things everywhere that grab me. Trees, vistas, stones, tombs, birds, shrubs...I love almost all of it. (There are a few bad stones here and there, hence the qualifier). Here, I'm photographing a dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides).  This incredible tree is literally a living fossil; it is the sole living representative of its genus (three are known only from fossils). 

Though the species was thought long extinct by 1944, a small stand of trees was discovered growing at a shrine in Sichuan Province, and all Metasequoias now alive are propagules of that one population. A sobering thought, but also kind of a beautiful one. I was told as an undergrad at Harvard that the first dawn redwoods were brought from China by a 1948 expedition launched by Harvard's Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts.  And that these two here at Mt. Auburn Cemetery were the very first to be planted anywhere outside that shrine in China. The plaques on their mighty trunks say they were planted in 1951, only seven years after the "living fossil's" rediscovery. 

Knowing that makes my awe at their beauty all the deeper.

An evergreen with the perfect audacity to color into flame, then drop every needle in one swell foop. 

They light up Spectacle Pond with celestial fire.

Hodge says that the window of beauty is very narrow; that when they drop their needles that's it, and it's very sudden. How blessed we are to be here when they're in full flame! and how blessed to have the sun peek out just as I am seeing them with brand new eyes.

I move to their bases to appreciate their weathered trunks and glowing needles. A neighbor of mine down the street in Richmond, Virginia made the mistake of planting one quite close to his house. It grew fast and dominated his yard, looking something like a feathered telephone pole, towering impossibly over his dwarf crabapples and his cowering split-level house. It reminded me of this lovely verse by Jane Hirshfield, titled simply "Tree."


It is foolish
to let a young redwood
grow next to a house.

Even in this
one lifetime,
you will have to choose.

That great calm being,
this clutter of soup pots and books—

Already the first branch-tips brush at the window.
Softly, calmly, immensity taps at your life.

Jane Hirshfield

Long may they grow and light this pond with their ancient fire.

Since the species' rediscovery, several natural populations have been found in Hubei's Lichuan County in China. The largest numbers around 5,400 trees. Yay and sigh.


My favourite tree, beautiful, grows well and botanically and historically interesting! I really like the fact that you can trace the very first "western" dawn redwoods of the modern era - I've tracked down a few of the early English ones (and I think the Boston Common tree in Ma. is one of the very old ones too)...

I had never really cared for the Dawn redwood until I saw it in its fall colors. Quite beautiful! Around the area here and at Reelfoot lake there are lots and lots of cypress trees. Several big areas of them in wet places. They are very pretty as well. I think my Japanese maple is trying to be a dawn redwood since it turned little rain and every leaf hit the ground!

Similiar to my beloved Tamarac of Northern Mn. beautiful! And you are so right, your word is perfect "cowering split level".

Posted by Anonymous November 17, 2011 at 6:44 AM

Dear J.Z.:
I hope you also took the stairs up to the top of the stone tower (sits on top of 'Mt. Auburn' in the cemetery). The view of Bwaston, Cambridge, Blemont, Arlington is 360ยบ, and spectacular, no matter the weather. Will R

Scaling the tower is always part of the expotition, Sir.

there is a dawn redwood along the klamath river, visible from hiway 96. ssshhh. don't tell anyone.

Your secret is safe here, Roger. Nobody reads blogs any more. : D

I, for instance, am not reading this blog, but have dropped in to mention something completely unrelated that I thought of the other day. To wit, a dawn redwood in its spring green is a stunning thing. What is this blog all about, anyway?

I have several growing here in SE Wisconsin. Outstanding color! Can't decide which is more intense- Metasequoia, Bald cypress, or Japanese larch.

That last photo--putting fingers to lips and smacking in Italian style, as if appreciating a delicious taste.

Thank you, Julie ~ your photos this month are so beautiful they make my heart hurt. I have really missed the Autumn colors since moving to Mississippi. Thanks for sharing!

Looks like a cypress with red hair.

We have a beautiful dawn redwood specimen here on the UMD campus! (Luckily it has a helpful little plaque describing the species and scientific name, otherwise I wouldn't have known and might've forgotten to look it up.) "Metasequoia" I get, but what does "glyptostroboides" mean, do you think? I had no idea they were so rare! I have loved gently running my fingers over those feathery needles, backlit by the afternoon sun...but I must say I'm going to be even more reverent from now on!

Metasequoia glyptostroboides - from Greek "meta" (changed) and sequoia (a relative) / glypto (carved) and stroboides (overlapping scales)--doubtless referring to the cones.

Dawn Redwood is my favorite tree. I had the great privilege of being allowed to photograph Hu and Cheng's specimen at the National Herbarium in Beijing. (I was computer lackey for the International Dendrological Research Institute at the time.)

This was SOOO interesting and informative. I didn't know anything about these trees before, and now I wish I could travel there to see them. How delightful when something springs back like this from what looked like its demise!

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