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Introduction to Dawn Redwood

Anne K Moore, January 8, 2010

Cave Hill Cemetery, located in Louisville, Kentucky, gets its name from the cave that shelters the spring-waters coming up from underground.  These waters rambled into a creek that has since been turned into a lake.  Although the large cave still shelters the spring-water source, it is not open to the public.  However, you can wander the cemetery grounds and enjoy the serenity and mature groves of trees and shrubs.

The General Assembly of Kentucky chartered Cave Hill as a rural cemetery in February of 1848.  The city now surrounds the 300 acre site.  Cemeteries were the botanical gardens of their time.  Here you can find many old shrubs and trees amongst the stone and winding drives.

Lee Squires, the Superintendent of Cave Hill, is our guest writer this week.  He tells us how the huge old dawn redwoods, once believed to be extinct, came to thrive at Cave Hill.  He also relates the wonderful power they possess to heal themselves.

DAWN REDWOOD (Metasequoia glyptostroboides)

Lee Squires, Superintendent, Cave Hill Cemetery
January 8, 2010

The Dawn Redwood is one of the most historically interesting trees in Cave Hill. The Dawn Redwood is in the same family as the Giant Sequoias from the California coast and the Bald Cypress, which is native to Kentucky and grows all over the South in swampy areas.

It is the second oldest tree known to man with fossil remains being found on many continents that date back millions of years. The Ginkgo is the only tree in existence older than the Dawn Redwood. For many years, only fossil remains were found of this unusual tree.

I have a leaf fossil in my collection that was found in Wyoming that dates back to the Eocene Epoch (55 to 38 million years ago). During this time most of the world was covered in forests and temperatures were tropical in most regions. The Eocene ushered in the first modern mammals and many trees because of the warm climate. There were even polar forests during the Eocene and Dawn Redwood fossils have been found in the Arctic in recent times.

“Dawn” refers to the “dawn of time” when the tree grew wild all over the world. Eocene, from the Greek, “eos” translates to dawn. “Meta”, in part of the genus Metasequoia, means “similar to”, i.e., similar to Sequoia. The Dawn Redwood is similar to the Sequoias in many growth characteristics but it is deciduous and the Sequoia is evergreen.

In 1941, the Arnold Arboretum, at Harvard University, made a plant collection trip to South-Central China and discovered a native grove of Dawn Redwood trees growing in a solitary stand. This was a shocking discovery since the tree had been considered to be extinct and had left this world with the dinosaurs. This is considered one of the most important botanical discoveries in the 20th Century.

The National Arboretum, in Washington, D.C., began propagation and Cave Hill’s original two trees came from this propagation around 1950. These trees are planted on the East bank of the lake and are magnificent specimens. Around 1980, the southernmost tree was hit by a horrendous lightning strike. The bolt shattered the trunk and blew bark into the road. The tree recovered 100% and has continued to flourish. The basic resistance to insect and fungus problems and lightning damage accounts for the longevity of the species and its 55 million year existence.

Several more Dawn Redwoods have been planted in Cave Hill since 1950. They grow fast, have a beautiful light green needle changing to orange in the Fall, a wonderful pyramidal shape at maturity and the uncanny ability to grow a new top when ice or wind breaks out the terminal branches.

The branches curve, arch, and shed reddish-brown exfoliating bark in long strips. The trunk has a gnarly root flare at the base as the tree ages, which adds a great deal of character. They prefer moist, well-drained planting sites in acid soil. They grow extremely fast.

In the home landscape, they can be very useful. If sun is a problem on your patio in late afternoon, plant one on the South or West side. In a few years, the shade from this speedy growing tree will obliterate sun from your barbecue and relaxation area. Many other shade trees take too long to give you the shade needed in this situation. I highly recommend planting one of these “living fossils” on your property.

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