If a fossil of an extinct species were to suddenly be alive today in almost identical form as it was living millions of years ago, not only would this feat in itself be amazing, but scientists would be jumping at the opportunity to study it. Allow me to bring you into this very scenario with Metasequoia glyptostroboides, also known as the Dawn Redwood. Not only thought to be extinct until the 1940s, but also what is known as a living fossil, very little to no discernable change exists between the trees growing today and the fossil record from the past. Referred to as a Lazarus Taxon, a species that disappears from fossil records only to reappear in a later period, either again as a fossil or a living specimen, Metasequoia is truly a remarkable specimen to study.
The only region where the tree was found growing in the wild is in the Sichuan-Hubei region of China, and there are only 5,000+ of them. Discovered in the 1940s, the limited population has made the tree a source of national pride in China. This status has produced both positive and negative consequences. On the positive side, Metasequoia is now protected under Chinese conservation law and planted extensively. On the negative side, the cones and seeds are so sought after that they are collected constantly, preventing it from naturally reproducing. If the older trees were to start dying, or any sort of natural destruction were to occur, there won’t be any younger trees to replace them. This could lead to the extinction of the tree in the wild, though kept from global extinction due to its extensive planting elsewhere. An example of a North American tree that went extinct in the wild for the same reason is the Franklinia alatamaha. Click to learn more about the Franklinia.
Marked as a Critically Endangered species, steps are being taken even here in the United States to preserve the species as a wild growing tree. Fossils of Metasequoia have been discovered all throughout the northern hemisphere. A 50-acre preserve has been established at the southern end of the Appalachia in North Carolina in an attempt to preserve the species. This preserve, called Crescent Ridge Dawn Redwoods Preserve, is set to open to the public in 2035. The trees are thriving here due to more ideal growing conditions than in China.
As its common name, Dawn Redwood, implies, Metasequoia is indeed related to the famous redwood trees in California, known as coastal redwoods. Reaching heights of at least 200 feet, it is truly a large specimen. Though related to Sequoia (California Redwood), Metasequoia differs in that it is deciduous (drops leaves in the fall), similar to bald cypress. The older specimens develop wide buttresses at the base of the trunk and it is a fast growing tree with opposite leaves that turn red-brown in the fall. Though the sole living species in its genus, three other fossils species are known. Together with Sequoia sempervirens (Coast Redwood) and Sequoiadendron giganteum (Giant Sequoia) of California, Metasequoia glyptostroboides is classified in the subfamily Sequoioideae of the family Cupressaceae.
Oliver Nurseries has a very unique and direct connection with Metasequoia. In the late 1940s, an expedition was put together by the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University to collect seeds and bring them back to the US. John Oliver had a contact at the Arnold Arboretum, and it was this connection that brought seeds from that first collection to the nursery. Today, close to a dozen specimens can be seen thriving at Oliver Nurseries. As the largest trees on the property, it doesn’t take much looking to find them, as a few can be seen as you pass the nursery.
While visiting the nursery you might even be lucky enough to look down in a garden or a path and see a small Metasequoia seedling growing. We have collected seedlings over the years and always have a few specimens for sale. The shape, size, and look are enough to inspire awe in a garden, but adding in the extremely unique history, who wouldn’t want a living fossil growing in their garden?
Swing by the nursery and see these gorgeous specimens and keep Metasequoia in mind the next time you are hiking through the forest, you never know what seemingly “extinct” species you might stumble upon.