Plant Profile: Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides)

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

The various species of 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 (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) is often planted in landscape applications. 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. This tree was given the Award of Garden Merit by Britain's Royal Horticultural Society.

Description

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. 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).

The dawn redwood rapidly grows to 75 to 100 feet or taller and 15 to 25 feet wide 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.

Botanical Information

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. Dawn redwood is suitable for growing in USDA hardiness zones 4 to 8 but may have a hard time in the colder areas.

The botanical name for this species is Metasequoia glyptostroboides, and it is part of the Cupressaceae family—the only remaining species in the genus. The dawn redwood sometimes is called the metasequoia.

Landscape Uses

This is a large and very fast-growing tree. If you have enough space for it, it can work well as a shade or street tree. It is also well suited to large public areas such as parks, university campuses, and commercial landscapes. Paradoxically, young specimens are sometimes used in container plantings. The tree does well in wet soils and can be a good choice for large rain gardens. It has a good tolerance for urban pollution.

Growing the Dawn Redwood

Grow the dawn redwood in moist, well-drained soil in full sun. It 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 it is quite alkaline. 

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

As might be suspected from the fact 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 be problems associated with this tree, but the damage is usually cosmetic and never life-threatening.