Plant Spotlight – Dawn redwood

We have several specimens of Metasequoia glyptostroboides, or the dawn redwood, here at Winterbourne, mostly planted in 1952. They can be seen in the Woodland Walk and Stream Lawn. Several handsome specimens even form an avenue running either side of the stream which flows beneath the Japanese Bridge near the Sandstone Rock Garden.

Dawn redwoods will grow in almost any conditions but they thrive best where there is plenty of moisture in the ground all year round. Our specimens planted on the permanently boggy Stream Lawn are the happiest at Winterbourne; ultimately, they are expected to reach around 25 metres in height.

The dawn redwood, was not discovered in its native China until 1941. In the same year a Japanese palaeobotanist, Shigeru Miki, had found the species fossilized and estimated that it had been extinct for around three million years. In fact, a handful of specimens were very much alive in the forests of north-eastern Sichuan.

Seeds were collected in 1947 and sent back to England the following year. Many of the mature specimens which you see planted in English gardens have been grown from this same stock. However, this original seed was collected from just three separate trees, meaning that the genetic base of the cultivated population is very poor, and not at all ideal for aiding conservation efforts.

Dawn redwoods remain endangered in their native habitats. After the Chinese revolution in 1949 much of the wild population was chopped down, although dawn redwoods have since been disregarded as a timber tree; their twisted, fluted bark making them unsuitable for lumber.

This fluted bark makes the Dawn Redwood an exceptional ornamental tree. They have long been planted in avenues, the biggest being in Pizhou, Jiangsu, China, which is 37 miles long, and contains over one million trees.

In addition to their beautiful bark, they also have brilliantly soft, alternating pairs of apple-green needles, and are one of few, but prized, deciduous conifers. In autumn the delicate foliage turns auburn before it falls.

Most people will not have gardens large enough to accommodate a mature dawn redwood, so they tend to be seen more frequently in parks and botanic gardens. However, there are a number of dwarf – or slow growing – cultivars that are considered more suitable for inclusion in the average sized back garden.

Metasequoia glyptostroboides ‘Chubby’ is very slow growing reaching about 3 metres tall when 10 years old. We planted one several years ago on the Stream Lawn where it is developing its characteristic pyramidal shape with the big, thick young branches responsible for its reputation as looking ‘chubby’.

There’s plenty variation in the leaf colour available too. Metasequoia glyptostroboides ‘Golden Oji’ (sometimes sold as M. ‘Gold Rush’) is the most popular and reliable yellow-needled cultivar. It remains a good strong yellow colour right throughout the summer and is no less interesting in autumn, turning fiery orange and bronze.

Both cultivars are frequently available in many good tree nurseries. Simply plant newly acquired dawn redwoods in full sun with a ready supply of water, and plenty of room for them to mature into, and you will be rewarded with excellent autumn colour and richly textured bark for many years to come.

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