PJ Gartin writes and gardens from her Charleston, S.C., home.

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Dawn Redwood
by PJ Gartin    


Dawn redwood readily grows in much of the South. This one soars above neighboring live oaks in downtown Charleston, S.C.


Most deciduous conifers, like this dawn redwood, have feathery soft green leaves that are reminiscent of pine needles.


In spite of this bald cypress’ urban setting, knees poke through its fallen autumn leaves.


‘Ogon’ dawn redwood sports bright, lime-green leaves. This one sits in a 5-gallon container at a nursery. 

 

Closely related to bald and pond cypress (Taxodium spp.), the dawn redwood is a fast-growing beauty that not only makes a dramatic horticultural statement, but is also bound to spice up the neighborhood gardening chatter. This is definitely an “Oh, wow” tree, but be sure to keep its plant tag handy because most people don’t believe dawn redwood grows anywhere other than California.

It’s unfortunate that the dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) is not used more often in our landscapes. This deciduous conifer feels right at home in the Southeast, even though its low salt tolerance makes it unacceptable along beaches.

Dawn redwood was once native to many parts of the world, including North America, but that was about 15 million years ago. Thought to be extinct, the only way we knew it ever existed was from fossils. It was rediscovered in China during the early 1940s, and a few years later Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum sent over a seed-gathering expedition. The University of California took note and also headed for the Far East.

Perhaps part of the misconception about dawn redwood thriving only out West is that the California Berkeley campus gained early notoriety for cultivating it. However, the real error has more to do with the misguided belief that only one kind of redwood grows in the United States. In fact there are several, but perhaps the most famous one is giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum). Also known as the giant redwood, this 250 foot tall behemoth grows along the Pacific side of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. This grand tree is not adapted to the Southeast’s sultry summers and mild winters, although bald cypress is its closest living relative.

Another characteristic that makes this plant interesting, the dawn redwood is a deciduous conifer. While there are about 550 species of conifers, five are unique because they are deciduous. One, Gingko biloba, doesn’t look like a conifer at all. Its flat, fan-shaped leaves turn brilliant yellow in the fall before dropping. The other four, dawn redwood, bald and pond cypress and larch (Larix spp.) look more like soft-green, feathery pine trees. They are also self-mulchers, turning a brilliant rust color before shedding and then covering the surrounding ground a velvety teddy bear brown.

So why bother to choose a non-native, deciduous conifer when there are similar-looking indigenous ones? After all, one doesn’t have to paddle through a marsh to admire bald or pond cypress – bald cypress has gained the reputation for growing willingly in urban settings. It is as nonchalant about hot pavement and drought as it is about perpetual sogginess.

Although both genera eventually display buttressed trunks, bald cypress grows more slowly than it’s Chinese cousin and it doesn’t get as tall. If you are seeking visual impact on a grand scale, then treat yourself to dawn redwood. Even in the winter its silhouette is striking. Its straight-arrow leader zooms upwards through the pyramidal geometry of mostly bare limbs.

 

 

 

Comparison of bald cypress and dawn redwood:

 

Bald cypress

Dawn redwood

Height

50-70 ft.; up to 100+ ft.

70–100 ft.; up to 120 ft.

Width

20–30 ft.

25 ft.

Growth rate

Medium

Fast

Juvenile shape

More column-like than conical.

Pyramidal/conical

Mature shape

Pyramidal/conical, but crown shape eventually softens.

Pyramidal/conical with slight loss of symmetry.

Leaf texture

Medium-fine

Medium-fine

Knees

Can appear even in urban settings.

No knees.

Soil

Low pH. Standing water to moist but well-drained.

Low pH. Tolerates wet soils, but prefers moist but well-drained.

Drought tolerance

Good

Moderate

Aerosol salt tolerance

Moderate

Low

Light

Sunny

Sunny

Readily available

Yes, but special order for some cultivars.

Yes, but special order for some cultivars.

Cultivars

Several. Some more spreading than others.

Several. ‘Ogon’ is bright lime-green.

(Photos by PJ Gartin)

 

Posted: 06/06/11   RSS | Print

 

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