Dulwich Trees
Metasequoia glyptostroboides - the ‘Dawn Redwood’

A Chinese forester working in Sichuan Province in 1943 came across a large deciduous coniferous tree which he thought was a ‘Water Pine’, Glyptostrobus Pensilis. However, he passed on a specimen and cones from the tree to a dendrology professor who immediately realised they represented something new. Further collected material confirmed that a new living genus had been discovered. It was then matched to the fossilised remains of Metasequoia, the name given to it: Meta meaning “akin to” Sequoia - the ‘Redwoods’ - and Glyptostroboides after the tree it was originally confused with, the ‘Chinese Water Pine’. It was in effect the discovery of what had been believed to be an extinct tree, and it was immediately dubbed, “The Living Fossil”. Special seed collecting expeditions followed, and seed was duly sent to botanical institutions around the world, including Britain, and by 1949 seedlings were offered for sale in Hillier’s catalogue at 1 guinea each. Some 60 years on, this tree is now a firm favourite and a common sight in parks and arboretums throughout the UK, proving it to be hardy, fast-growing and tolerant of most soils. It is often confused with the Taxodium distichum, another deciduous conifer, but easily distinguished by its ‘buttress’ or flared trunk base and its oppositely arranged leaves; the ‘Swamp Cypress’ displays an alternate arrangement. The bark of the Metasequoia is reddish brown, becoming darker as the tree matures when it is prone to shed long fibrous strips, giving it a shaggy appearance. The foliage is delightfully soft and feathery, having needles of a bright green colour which become golden bronze before falling in autumn. Insignificant male and female flowers are borne on the same tree, and small cones develop to be held throughout winter. The ‘Dawn Redwood’, as it is also known - a reference to fossil remains from the “dawn of time” in the Mesozoic era - forms a spectacular spire and will reach a height of 21-30 metres. Good examples may be seen in Dulwich Park on the lawn beyond the Lodge from the Old College Gate entrance, and a fine specimen in the Dulwich Picture Gallery garden.

Valerie Hill-Archer (Trees Committee)

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