I first heard about the dawn-redwood tree, Metasequoia glyptostroboides, about twenty-five years ago, through a romanticized story about a thought-to-be-extinct tree found growing in a monastery in China. The story went on, that in the 1940s, only one tree was found and it had been saved from the brink of extinction by plant explorers (from the United States, naturally), who, recognizing the value of their find, smuggled seed back to the States in an effort to preserve this species from extinction. Little did I know that years later, I would hear the "rest of story" and that it would be quite different from that romanticized version.
My first "realtime" association with Metasequoia glyptostroboides came with a letter from Dr. John Kuser, Associate Professor of Forestry with Rutgers University in 1990. He sent a letter asking if The Dawes Arboretum could help fund seed collection of Metasequoia in China. Along with his letter came copies of a research paper he had published in 1983 saying that an inbreeding depression had been noticed in isolated trees of Metasequoia growing in the United States. That made sense, if the fable I had heard of the "single tree" theory was correct, but also included with his letter were copies of letters he had received from Li Minghe, Associate Professor at Huazhong Agricultural University in Hubei that said,
"...There were about 6,000 big trees growing in a valley area of Hubei Province (in 1940). In 1985 (by my memory), big trees of the species were also found in Hunan Province. Now, several millions of trees (mostly rooted cuttings) are planted in the central, southern and eastern parts of China each year. I believe the (genetic variation) is much larger than it is in the U.S. No research on genetic variation, clonal selection and rejuvelation [sic] of the old trees of the species has been made and I'm, interested in that. Seed collection is possible if you can provide some financial support, I think...."
"...Two weeks ago, I met the man at a national meeting who first discovered Metasequoia in 1943. He told me that the U.S. introduced the seed in 1948 and 1949. The seeds were collected from the big tree, Type 1, that was an isolated tree in a village. In 1986, 8 Americans came to China to see Metasequoia trees and I was invited to go with them, It was raining hard. We saw this tree only. Now I know big trees were found in three provinces, Hubei, Hunan and Sichuan. They are in remote mountain areas...."
Early 1940s A Japanese paleobotanist, Shigeru Miki, searching for fossil plants in Japan's Cenozoic clay finds female cones similar to redwood, Sequoia spp., and vegetative shoots that resemble bald-cypress, Taxodium spp., but plant parts are opposite. Complete fossil found in Hondo.
1941 Professor Miki described & named it Metasequoia by combining Greek meta, meaning "akin to," and Sequoia. The same year, a Chinese forester T. Kan was traveling in eastern Sichuan province, near the town of Modaoqi, and noticed three intriguing trees, with a small shrine by one.
1942 He asked district school principal, Yang, to collect some samples and send them to him -- they were collected and sent, but were never identified.
1944 School principal Yang asked Mr. Wang Zhang of China's Forest Research Center to investigate. Wang gathered cones and branchlets thinking that it was Chinese swamp cypress, Glyptostrobus lineatus. The specimen was sent to Professor Cheng, at the Department of Forestry at the National Central University, but the herbarium materials and samples were incomplete.
1946 Dr. Cheng sent graduate student Hsueh Chi-ju on a collecting trip. He ended up making two trips. Each trip Hsueh travelled two days by steamboat then walked 72 miles to get to the trees, on roads that were dangerous (bandits).
The trees were dormant, but had fruit, which Hsueh collected. But since the specimen had no leaves, he had to return a second time to collect them. The first complete specimen was sent to Professor Cheng, and he knew it was a new genus.
He sent the herbarium specimen to Dr. Hu, director of Fan Memorial Institute in Beijing. Dr. Hu had read Miki's article on Metasequoia and put fossil and living tree together, and published a paper on the new genus.
Dr. Cheng, a former Harvard graduate, sent herbarium samples to Dr. Elmer Merrill at Arnold Arboretum. Merrill arranged for the arboretum to fund a seed-collecting expedition for late summer and fall 1947.
1947 1,000 trees were found in a 25-mile long valley of the Yangtze river, but only two pounds of seeds were collected.
1948 1,500 trees were grown from the seed in U.S., Copenhagen and Amsterdam.
Hu & Cheng fully described the plant and gave it the specific epithet "glyptostroboides" in honor of its resemblance to Chinese swamp cypress -- Glyptostrobus.
When paleontologist Ralph Chaney of University of California - Berkeley read the paper, he re-examined fossil evidence and found that the dominant conifer of arctic forests of the Tertiary period was not the evergreen Sequoia that everyone thought, but instead it was Metasequoia.
Chaney, with funds from Save-the Redwood League visited the trees in March and coined the common name dawn redwood. (Actually used Chinese redwood but newspapers liked dawn redwood better.)
1949 One more expedition into China - J. Linsley Gressitt of California. Noted that the valley where Metasequoia grew had beech, willow, poplar, oak, maple, and chestnuts!
Bamboo Curtain comes down - no foreigners allowed in China until 1980.
1980 Sino-American Botanical Expedition to western Hupei, five Americans go. One Metasequoia still exists in Modaoqi. Estimated age - 450 years.
Many trees had been planted (from cuttings), but no seedlings were found in the valley. All that remained were more than 200 stumps of tree trunks, some over 6.5' diameter, cut to make flooring.
Notes say that Metasequoia valley is 12.5 miles long and enclosed on all four sides (making it a box canyon). Trees found in valley bottom mostly occupied by rice paddies. Tallest tree is 160' tall.
1981 In United States:
Problem noticed in isolated trees - cones being produced, but little or no seed production.
Dr. John E. Kuser, Rutgers University, did inbreeding depression study - verifies problem with self-fertilization, same as found in Sequoia and Pseudotsuga menziesii, Douglas-fir.
1983 Kuser publishes further work on Metasequoia, listing size and location of many of the original Arnold trees. Other notes: "Trees growing in the U.S. appear to have originated from seed received in January 1948 by Dr. Merrill of Arnold from Professor Cheng from Hupei. There is no record of introductions from outside Hupeh."
1990 May 1990,
Professor Minghe of Huazhong Agricultural University wrote to John Kuser.
"There were about 6,000 big trees growing in a valley area of Hubei Province (in 1940). In 1985 (by my memory), big trees of the species were also found in Hunan Province. Now, several millions of trees (mostly rooted cuttings) are planted in the central, southern and eastern parts of China each year. I believe the (genetic variation) is much larger than it is in the U.S. Seed collection is possible if you can provide some financial support."
"... Two weeks ago, I met the man at a national meeting who first discovered Metasequoia in 1940's. He told me that the US introduced the seeds in 1948 and 1949. The seeds were collected from the big tree, Type 1 that was an isolated tree in a village [Actually 3 trees, one large, 2 smaller].
In 1986, Americans came to China to see Metasequoia trees and I was invited to go with them. It was raining hard. We saw this tree only. Now I know big trees were found in three provinces, Hubei, Hunan and Sichuan. They are in remote mountain areas.
The seeds are now difficult to obtain because the price is high and local people collect them for sale before seeds mature...."
1991 April 1991
53 seed packets of Metasequoia seed received by Kruser at Rutgers.
1992 Feb 1992
Minghe to Kruser - "Tree #1 (packet 1) is Type 1, it is at least 20 miles away from other flowering trees. Americans collected seeds from this tree in 1948 and 1949."
Kruser to all cooperators
"Most of the Metasequoias in the United states share a narrow genetic base, derived from the 1948 Arnold Arboretum seedlot which may have originated from only a single tree.
Seed from a rangewide collection of 52 individual trees has been sent by Professor Minghe from China in April 1991 (1990 Seed crop). Parent-tree data was also collected."
1993 April 1993
Seedlings shipped airmail bare-root to The Dawes Arboretum. Planted same day.
344 planted randomly on 25' centers on 8 acres.
Representatives of 48 of the 52 parent trees that produced seed in China.
The only complete collection of all seedlots (outside China), besides the one at Rutgers.
Other cooperators received seedlings also -
Callaway Gardens - 25; Princeton University - 10; Holden Arboretum - 100; Arnold Arboretum; Save-the-Redwood League; Univ. of California; etc.
1994 April 1994
Of the original 344 - 5 have died, but we have duplicate trees from those seedlots.
Planting bareroot was 99% successful.
All 48 seedlots are still represented.
Rest seem to be growing fine. After -25F winter, time will tell.
1995 337 individuals remain alive (7 have died, but representatives of all 48 collection trees remain. Some trees actually doubled in height over the last year. Data will be sent to Dr. Kuser for compilation with Rutgers to give better statistics.
Donald R. Hendricks, Director
The Dawes Arboretum, Newark, Ohio
Bartholomew, B. 1981. "Plant Collecting in China;" University of California Berkeley
Botanical Garden Quarterly.
Hendricks, Donald R. 1990-present. personal correspondence w/ John E. Kuser.
Hendricks, Donald R. 1993. "Dawn-redwood research;" The Dawes Arboretum Newsletter; 28(10); October.
Hsueh, Chi-ju 1985. "Reminiscences of Collecting the Type Specimens of Metasequoia glyptostroboides;" Arnoldia; 45(4).
Kuser, John E. 1990. "China's Living Fossil;" The World & I; Jan/Feb.
Kuser, John E. 1983. "Inbreeding Depression in Metasequoia;" Journal of the Arnold Arboretum; 64; July.
Kuser, John E. 1982. "Metasequoia Keeps on Growing;" Arnoldia 42(3).
Kuser, John E. 1990-present. personal correspondence w/ Li Minghe.
Li, Minghe 1990-present. personal correspondence w/John E. Kuser.
Limstrom, G.A. 1950. personal correspondence w/H.W. Jones, The Dawes Arboretum; June.
Mahoney, D.H. 1950, personal correspondence w/G.A. Linstrom, U.S. Dept of Forestry; June.
Merrill, E.D. 1948. "Metasequoia, Another 'Living Fossil;'" Arnoldia; 8(1).
Sand, Susan 1992. "The Dawn Redwood"; American Horticulturist; October.