Metasequoia glyptostroboides makes a fine tree now familiar due to its remarkable appearance. The beautiful ferny foliage is a bright emerald green in spring, turning russet-brown with tints of coppery pink in autumn. The strong pyramidal winter silhouette is also very attractive and older trees form wide buttresses on the lower trunk and form a distinctive "armpit" under each branch. The bark is vertically fissured and tends to exfoliate in ribbon-like strips., making the Dawn Redwood a strong contender for year-round interest. It prefers a damp habitat, and is best planted near to water if the land is typically well drained, but also makes a perfect Bonsai specimen for the windowsill.
Metasequoia glyptostroboides, otherwise known as the Dawn Redwood, is a fast-growing, endangered and coniferous tree - the sole living relic species of the genus Metasequoia, one of three species in the subfamily Sequoioideae. It is native to Lichuan County in the Hubei province of China. Although shortest of the redwoods, it can still grow to at least 200ft (61m) in height.
From fossil records this tree was common across the northern hemisphere and the Dawn Redwood was originally considered extinct. The genus Metasequoia was first described in 1941 as a fossil of the Mesozoic Era, and none of the fossils discovered were less than 1.5 million years old. Dr. Shigeru Miki (1901–1974), a paleobotanist from Kyoto University, identified a divergent leaf form while studying fossil samples of the family Cupressaceae and realized he was looking at a new genus, which he named Metasequoia, meaning"like a sequoia."
Coincidentally, in that same year a Chinese forester named T. Kan of Nanjing University chanced upon an enormous living specimen while performing a survey in Sichuan and Hubei provinces. Though unaware of Miki’s new genus, he recognised the unique traits of the tree. It formed part of a local shrine, where villagers called it Shui-shan or Water Fir. Then in 1943, Zhan Wang (1911–2000), a Chinese forestry official, collected samples from an unidentified tree in Modaoxi, China (presently, Moudao, Lichuan County, Hubei) now believed to be the same tree Kan had discovered. The samples were determined to belong to a tree unknown to science, confirming Kan’s theory, but the event of World War II postponed further study. It wasn’t until 1946 that anyone connected Miki's genus and the living samples. Professors Wan Chun Cheng and Hu Xiansu made the pivotal connection and provided the specific epithet "glyptostroboides,"after its resemblance to the Chinese swamp cypress - Glyptostrobus.
In September 1946 armed with this exciting news the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University in the US funded an expedition to collect seeds from Kan's original tree and by spring in 1948 had distributed seeds and seedlings to various universities and arboreta worldwide for growth trials. However, the seed from which the beautiful and fast-maturing specimen now growing on the south-western shore of the Lake at the Cambridge University Botanic Garden, somehow bypassed the official introduction from Harvard and instead was introduced directly as seed from China. This tree on the south-western edge of the lake, is therefore the first Dawn Redwood to grow on British soil since the Mesozoic era, when dinosaurs dominated the fauna. 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 ‘Meetings with Remarkable Trees’ (1996). It has proved fast-growing: it was 1.5m tall by the time of the accession of Queen Elizabeth II to the throne in 1952, 17 metres by the time of the Silver Jubilee in 1977, and was approaching 23 metres in the Golden Jubilee year of 2002.
One of the beneficiaries of the seed that was sent out by the Arnold Arboretum was Harold Hillier of the Hillier Nurseries in Winchester – the nursery indeed in which I served my apprenticeship in commercial horticulture. Hillier Nurseries were the first to sell plants of this amazing new tree in the UK in 1949 when it catalogued them at 21 shillings each for " seedlings of surprising vigour”. Trees grown in the UK from the Harvard seed can now be seen in many gardens and arboreta including of course the famous Sir Harold Hillier Gardens and many of which have already reached over 30m in height.
One of the events in my life of greatest pride was growing some of the first commercially viable seed of Metasequoia in the UK, when China was once again opened for business in the 1980s when Carl Sandeman of Sandeman Seeds imported seeds directly and some of this introduction grown by me are now over 10m in height - one of which is in my own garden.
David West 2016