My Favorite Conifer


I grew up in the deserts of Arizona and rarely saw large trees.  Arizona does have vast pine forests but the trees are rarely taller than 50 feet.  So when I moved to Virginia after college I thought I was in tree heaven. There are mixed forests of White Oaks, Yellow Poplars, Sycamores, and Hemlocks all reaching 100 feet or more.

When my wife Michelle and I purchased our new home the developer had planted only one small Flowering Cherry tree in the front yard. I quickly got out the catalogs (pre internet commerce) and began ordering trees. One selection I made was Metasequoia glyptostroboides (Dawn Redwood). I was very disappointed with the little broken bare rooted stick that arrived a few weeks later. I stuck it in the corner of our backyard and basically ignored it. Twenty years later that broken stick had grown to 60 feet and produced an abundance of seed from which I grew over 100 trees. I certainly have a favorite conifer.

The history of Dawn Redwood is fascinating but has been told so many times by so many people that it hasnumerous versions.  The version I believe to be the most accurate is as follows.  A Japanese scientist named S. Miki was studying an ancient Japanese tree fossil in 1941 and realized that this was a unique unnamed tree that he thought was extinct for millions of years.  He created a new genus and named the fossil Metasequoiaglyptostroboides.

Here is where the story begins to get confusing because several people lay claim to having discoveredMetasequoia glyptostroboides, probably for professional recognition.  In 1943 a Chinese professor C. Wang collected specimens from an unusual tree in Moudao (Modaoqi), China that the local villagers referred to asshui-sa (water fir).  He identified these specimens as Glyptostrobus pensilis. The specimens went through several hands before reaching W.C. Cheng who realized that they were incorrectly identified and something completely new.  Cheng had more specimens collected from Moudao and sent them to H. Hu who matched them to the fossil genus Metasequoia glyptostroboides published by Miki in 1941.  Hu published his findings in 1946 in The Bulletin of the Geological Society of China.

Hu began contacting botanists around the world including E.D. Merrill of Harvard and Ralph Cheney of the University of California, Berkeley. These two men began a lifelong feud over who introduced Metasequoiaglyptostroboides to the U.S.  Merrill sent Hu $250  American ( $10,000,000 Chinese, there was rampant inflation in China) to fund an expedition to collect seed. In 1948 both Hu and Cheng sent large shipments of seed to Merrill who immediately distributed them to individuals, Universities and Arboretums worldwide. It is amazing that any seed ever got to the U.S. because there was a civil war raging in China at the time. Cheney and Milton Silverman, a science reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, were the first Americans to visit China in 1948 and actually see the trees.  Cheney named Metasequoia glyptostroboides  ‘Dawn Redwood’ to make Silverman’s stories more acceptable to the Chronicle’s readers.  Cheney later claimed that he returned with 25,000 seeds despite his trip being in spring when no mature seed could have been collected.

Today there are thousands of Dawn Redwoods in the U.S. with a few approaching 150 ft in height and 5 ft in diameter.  Despite it’s worldwide distribution Metasequoia glyptostroboides is listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List with only 1000 to 5000 trees living in the wild, most in central China.

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4 Responses to “My Favorite Conifer”

  1. Ultimately, the author made an update for his blog. Im waiting anxiously for your forthcoming update. Let’s we imagine you will consider updating with greater regularity options . readers could follow along. I shouldnt cash joy to have at this moment and your blog is a. I recognize our life is busy but lets i do hope you can certainly make the energy to help keep updated on any progress.

    • Kyser, this is a real time blog and we all know how slow bonsai grow and develop. I update when there is a noticeable difference. I will continue to start new projects and develop this blog over time. As far as a busy life, mine is very. If you sign up for free e-mails you will be notified of any new posts and changes to my blog. Best wishes.

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