Dawn Redwood: Plant Profile

Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides), March
Joshua McCullough/Photolibrary/Getty Images

Sequoia trees are the largest trees in the world. The most famous members of the family are the coastal redwood (Sequoia sempervires) and the giant sequoia (Sequoiadenron giganteum) of California, but neither of those trees is commonly planted for landscape purposes. However, the dawn redwood is often planted in landscapes, and although it is too big for most private gardens, it can be a wonderful addition in public parks, as a boulevard tree, or in large estates or farms. It does quite well in damp soils, so can be a good choice for large rain garden locations.

  • Botanical Name: Metasequoia glyptostroboides
  • Common Name: Dawn redwood
  • Plant Type: Deciduous conifer tree
  • Mature Size: 75 to 100 feet
  • Sun Exposure: Full sun
  • Soil Type: Loamy, well-drained soil
  • Soil pH: Acidic; ideal pH is about 4.5
  • Bloom Time: Non-flowering
  • Flower color: Non-flowering
  • Hardiness Zones: 4 to 8 (USDA)
  • Native Area: Wet lower slopes and river valleys of central and western China

Botanical Information

Dawn redwood is one of only a few deciduous conifers—these trees have conifer needles rather than leaves, but instead of keeping the needles year-round, the tree turns color and the needs are shed in autumn, just like broadleaf trees.

The dawn redwood is considered a "living fossil." It dates from prehistoric times, and fossil records show that it existed 50 million years ago. Once was thought to be extinct, the dawn redwood was rediscovered in China in 1941.

The tree is endangered as a naturally occurring species, and it is found only in small areas of south-central China, where it is regarded as a national treasure and is carefully protected. Although rare in the wild, the species is well represented in landscape and arboretum plantings, and it is now a common landscape specimen.

Description

The dawn redwood rapidly grows to a large tree with a pyramidal shape. Specimens as tall as 200 feet have been identified. The bark becomes deeply fissured as the tree matures, and the base of the tree forms a wide flare.

The feathery, fine-textured needles are opposite, and approximately 1/2 inch long. They turn shades of red and brown in autumn before falling. Male pollen cones are formed on chains, appearing at the start of spring. The fruit is a 1-inch female oval cone; this is one of the few deciduous conifers.

Close-Up Of Pine Tree (Dawn Redwood)
Adél Békefi / Getty Images

Light

This redwood needs full sun to reach its mature height.

Soil

The dawn redwood does not do well if grown in alkaline or dry soils. If your spot is somewhat alkaline, there are methods to make your soil acidic, though you may need to repeat this, and the difficulty of changing the pH increases if the soil is quite alkaline. 

Water

Ideally, this tree should be planted not far from a natural water source. It can tolerate loamy, waterlogged soil well.

Temperature and Humidity

This plant does well throughout the conditions of USDA hardiness zones 4 to 8, and is especially good where it receives cool humidity.

Fertilizer

This plant generally does not require feeding, provided it has been planted in appropriately humusy soil.

Propagating Dawn Redwood

Dawn redwood can be propagated from hardwood cuttings. Because the plant is very fast growing, propagated trees can become contributing landscape specimens within a few years. If you take cuttings in early spring, you will be able to plant the saplings by fall.

  1. Fill a 1-gallon nursery container with sand up to within 2 inches of the top. Run water through the container for 5 minutes to rinse it thoroughly.
  2. Cut a 6-inch long shoot from a side branch on the tree. An ideal cutting will have a stem about 1/4-inch thick. Angle the cut end at 45-degrees, just below a leaf node.
  3. Scrape off a segment of bark about 1/2 inch long and 1/4 inch wide near the cut end of the branch, but take care not to damage the leaf node.
  4. Coat the cut end and the scraped area with acid rooting powder.
  5. Insert the branch, cut-side-down, into the pot of sand, burying it to about half its length.
  6. Place the pot in an sheltered outdoor area, and keep the sand constantly moist. Placing the pot on a heated mat may speed up the rooting process.
  7. Test for roots after 1 month, by tugging on the branch to see if roots are holding it in place. It may take 2 or even 3 months for anchoring roots to develop.
  8. When roots have developed, transplant the cutting into a 1-gallon nursery container filled with a mixture of equal parts loam, sand and compost.
  1. Water the plant with 2 inches of water each week for the rest of the season. After the tree drops its foliage in fall, plant it in the garden.

Comparison With Bald Cypress

Dawn redwood is often confused with common bald cypress (Taxodium distichum). The needles on dawn redwood are opposite, meaning they are positioned directly across from each other on the stem, while bald cypress needles are alternate (staggered).

Avenue with Dawn Redwoods (Metasequoia glyptostroboides), Mainau, Baden-Wuerttemberg, Germany
Helmut Meyer zur Capellen / Getty Images

Varieties of Dawn Redwood

A very popular cultivar is 'Gold Rush' (Metasequoia glyptostroboides 'Gold Rush'), which has golden yellow foliage and a narrow habit. it grows 50 feet high and 20 feet wide, making it a more manageable tree for moderate landscape sites.

Pruning

Dawn redwood naturally forms into a pyramidal shape, so little pruning is needed other than the customary removal of dead, diseased, and damaged branches. Propagation is with stratified seeds and cuttings.

Common Problems

Given that the dawn redwood has existed for many millions of years, this is a remarkable trouble-free plant. It can be susceptible to frost damage, as it grows until late in the season and may be caught by early chills. Try to find a spot that can offer some shelter from the elements, if possible—especially if you live in the northern end of its hardiness range.

Japanese beetles and spider mites can cause problems with this tree, but the damage is usually cosmetic and never life-threatening.