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A Plant-Love Story: How A Living Fossil Plant Brought the World Together

Articles: A Plant-Love Story: How A Living Fossil Plant Brought the World Together

Winter 2024 

If there were three words that could aptly describe the Metasequoia glyptostroboides—commonly known as the dawn redwood—we think they would be: Resilient. Adaptable. Universal.

The dawn redwood, whose genus name Metasequoia means “like a sequoia,” is a versatile and ancient tree with many uses and benefits for gardens, wildlife, and humans.

A fascinating aspect of dawn redwood trees is the mystery behind the name. One theory is that the name comes from the rich orange color its feathery needles turn before falling. Another is that it comes from the tree’s reddish-brown fibrous and deeply furrowed bark. Yet a third claims its name is an homage to its improbable chance at a new day in the epochal calendar of existence.

One of the seven Dawn Redwood trees at Lake Washington Ship Canal and Hiram M. Chittenden Locks, Seattle, winter 2023. Source: Shay Perryman, USACE, Seattle.
Dawn Redwood tree in fall. Source: Dave’s Garden.

Regardless of which theory hits the mark, there is an undeniable truth that this large, conical-shaped tree holds a fascinating—extraordinary, even—place in the history of paleobotany, as one of the few living plants known first as a fossil. 

Dawn redwood trees originally populated parts of eastern Russia, Europe, China, Japan, and North America around 60 million years ago. They are relatives of the California redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) and giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum), diverging around 150 million years ago.

This ancient coniferous tree, with reddish bark and leaves, is a living fossil from the Mesozoic Era, native to the border region of Hubei and Sichuan provinces in central China.

Once you’ve seen a dawn redwood, you can’t forget them. They typically reach 70 to 100 feet tall and have a conical crown with horizontal branches that are arranged in tiers. Their fernlike feathery foliage emerges light green in spring, changing to dark green in summer, then russet-brown in autumn. This deciduous tree drops its needles every autumn—unusual for a conifer.

In the 1920s, the botanist community around the world believed the dawn redwood was only a fossil. Here in Seattle, at the Lake Washington Ship Canal and Hiram M. Chittenden Locks—a navigational operating project managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers—horticulturalist Carl S. English Jr. even believed they had gone extinct.

Imagine his delight and surprise to learn that trees growing in China were discovered in 1941.

Dawn Redwood bark in summer. Source: The Living Urn

It intrigued English to explore how well dawn redwood propagations would adapt to the Pacific Northwest climate. His research into this tall and fast-growing tree, its ability to grow in moist soil, sun or shade, and its resilience against cold and frost in not too hot or dry conditions, led him to arrange for seeds to propagate trees here.

He was confident that not only would the dawn redwood tree survive, it would thrive.

During his 43 years working with the Army Corps, throughout his travels and correspondence with prominent botanists, and with the help of ship captains returning through the Chittenden Locks, English received some of the first dawn redwood seeds ever shipped to the United States.

Dawn Redwood seeds and leaves in summer. Source: Hudson River Park.

After obtaining and cultivating these seeds in 1948, English planted trees on the locks grounds in the 1960s. The seven dawn redwood trees growing in the botanical garden today are members of a special group of plants that are just one generation removed from their native countries.

Here at the Chittenden Locks, the presence of the dawn redwood holds a special place in the heart of the Army Corps. Their presence is a constant reminder—a beacon—of English’s commitment to propagate a wide variety of plants to see what would work, and a testament to his wish to see his namesake botanical garden become a place worthy of serious botanical and horticultural study.

English was among the first of hundreds of hands representing different nations and cultures that obtained and planted seeds in moist soil around the US and the world. He and others in the botanist community participated in an unforeseen and widely encouraged global effort to reanimate this ghost of evolution and populate parks and gardens across the world with dawn redwood trees.

To this day, Army Corps gardeners collaborate with researchers, scientists, and botanists at the University of Washington and other long-standing partners including the Seattle Garden Club, to continue what English started.

Dawn redwoods are regarded as popular ornamental trees with international appeal, growing strong in temperate climates in gardens and parks across the US and worldwide. Today, they strike a commanding presence in London, and thrive in the Atatürk Arboretum in Istanbul, Turkey. Three stand guard over Strawberry Fields—the John Lennon memorial in Central Park, New York.

Dawn Redwood bark in summer. Source: World Wonders Garden
Dawn Redwood in summer. Source: Arnold Arboretum.

When dawn redwood trees were discovered in 1941, theoretical physicist and scientist Albert Einstein praised the science community’s efforts to propagate more of these trees worldwide.

He used this instance of global collaboration and exchange to make a case for “the common language of science” as the only impartial understanding that could save humanity from itself.

His statement stemmed from his belief that each dawn redwood, growing from a patch of moist soil somewhere on the earth, was an example of, and a living testament to, what is truest and most beautiful in humanity.

In the final years of the twentieth century, the Arnold Arboretum’s magazine, Arnoldia, named the dawn redwood “the tree of the century.”

Dawn Redwood in summer. Source: PlantSystematics.

This article is sponsored by:


Arens, Nan Crystal. Dawn Redwood. “Dawn redwood | Description, Discovery, Endangered, & Facts.” Britannica.

Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University. 2023. “Dawn Redwood.”

Coniferous Forest. 2023. “Dawn Redwood Facts, Habitat, Growth Rate, Lifespan, Pictures.”

Popova, Maria. 2023. “The Remarkable Story of the Dawn Redwood: How a Living Fossil Brought Humanity Together in the Middle of a World War.” The Marginalian.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. 1989. Historic Grounds Report. The Carl S. English Jr. Botanical Garden. Hiram M. Chittenden Locks. Prepared by Renee L. Freier. Seattle: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Seattle District Library. [PDF]




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