Dawn Redwood

A tree from the 'Dinosaur age'

By Bill Goff ©2014
Penn State Master Gardener

Metasequoia glyptostroboides, commonly known as dawn redwood, is a majestic tree perfectly suited for use in a larger landscape. By planting a dawn redwood you are planting part of history. It is a tree that existed in the Mesozoic period — when dinosaurs roamed our planet.

Dawn redwoods have a fascinating history. Botanists have dubbed its discovery the most significant event in the plant world during the past century. It was known only as a fossil until the 1940s, when a stand was discovered in a remote part of China. Scientists thought dawn redwoods had been extinct for 5 million years. In 1947, a group of plantsmen from the Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum traveled to China.

They gathered 4 pounds of seeds, which were ultimately shared with other institutions and botanical gardens in the United States and Europe. This was the beginning of the resurgence of dawn redwood in horticultural circles worldwide.

Dawn Redwood changing colors in the Fall

Dawn redwood is pyramidal in youth, becoming more rounded with age. It is a tree which offers four-season interest. In the spring and summer, green cones one-half to 1 inch in diameter hang delicately from its feathery green needles. The needles turn orange to rust in the fall, perfectly complemented by its cinnamon-colored bark. In winter, its stark silhouette and buttressed trunk make a strong statement against the snow.


These are large trees that require plenty of space. Newly planted trees can grow quickly, up to 7 feet per year in optimal growing conditions. Mature trees can reach 90 feet with a spread of 25 feet. The original trees in China are almost 130 feet tall. Because of their ultimate size, dawn redwoods require a large site. They are often featured in parks and golf courses. If you have a large open area of lawn and would like an unusual specimen tree, dawn redwood would be a great choice.

Metasequoia glyptostroboides trunk

They are not difficult to grow and hardy in zones 4-8. This tree loves three things — full sun, moist but well-drained soil and slightly acidic soil pH. The tree will thrive if all three of these conditions exist. It does not do well in alkaline soils, but it is adaptable to partial sun and less than ideal soil moisture. Because of its uniform growth habit, a dawn redwood requires very little pruning to obtain a nice shape. It is relatively free of pests and diseases, although bagworms and Japanese beetles may affect the foliage.

One of 3 Deciduous Conifers

Dawn redwood is unique in that it is one of three deciduous conifers. The other two are the larch (Larix) and the bald cypress (Taxodium distichum). Despite their needle-shaped leaves, these species are deciduous. In the fall, these species’ green needles turn yellow or russet before falling. Neophyte homeowners might mistakenly have the tree removed when what they surmise are evergreen trees shed their needles.

Dawn Redwood dropping its foliage in Fall

If the lateral branches of Metasequoia glyptostroboides are left to grow down to the base, the tree will develop its trademark fluted trunk. In my own garden, I have allowed these side branches to remain and I enjoy the sculptural shape of the trunk. Often gardeners will remove the lower limbs of the tree to facilitate lawn care.

There are several cultivars: ‘Goldrush’ and ‘Ogon’ which have bright yellow foliage, and ‘Sheridan Spire’ and ‘National,’ which grow to a relatively “short” 60 feet tall and have a more fastigiate (narrow) shape. These attributes make them valuable in a space too small to accommodate the species. ‘Emerald Feathers’ has exceptionally fine green foliage.

Avenue of the Giants in Northern California

The dawn redwood is often confused with its look-alike cousin, the bald cypress. The dawn redwood with its more pyramidal habit has opposite leaves, while the more columnar bald cypress has alternate leaves.

I planted a dawn redwood two decades ago. It is now 40 feet tall with a spread of 20 feet. I loved the notion that the dawn redwood was lost to antiquity and was then “found”. It is a wonderful conversation piece in the garden. Metasequoia glyptostroboides is easy to find at local nurseries, yet is considered a critically endangered species in the wild. I love it for its bizarre and wonderfully twisted trunk and its unusual deciduous needles.

Avenue of the Giants map
Driving the 'Avenue of the Giants' in northern California



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