On Gardening

Dawn redwood offers riveting autumn color

McClatchy-Tribune News ServiceDecember 21, 2012 


The dawn redwood once thought to be extinct offers exceptional landscape performance including riveting fall color. (MCT)


The dawn redwood is one of the most picturesque conifers we have at the Columbus (Ga.) Botanical Garden. It has been here for just over a dozen years and its upright conical form is simply irresistible. This fall its color was absolutely riveting.

You may want to grow it strictly for its botanical name, which is Metasequoia glyptostroboides. Can you imagine spouting that one to your neighbors? This is one of three trees classified as redwoods along with the giant sequoia, Sequoiadendron giganteum, and the coastal redwoods, Sequoia simpervirens.

Fossils found in several areas of the U.S. suggest the dawn redwood was probably extinct. Then in 1941 it was found in an obscure valley in Szechuan, China. Now we can buy it at garden centers and grow it in our landscapes.

One of the oldest living trees on Earth, dawn redwood can reach 70 to 100 feet high and 25 feet wide, though old varieties in China are much taller. It has been known to reach 40 to 50 feet in height after 20 years of good growing conditions. These conditions are acidic soil, ample moisture and plenty of sun.

These are exactly the conditions enjoyed by ours, which after 12 years is slightly over 30 feet tall. The dawn redwood is fairly quick to form a thick, distinctive buttress at the bottom of the tree, which is most attractive in a landscape setting.

While fall and early spring are traditionally considered tree-planting times, container-grown stock allows us to plant year-round. The dawn redwood has a huge range, from Zone 4 to Zone 8 (which includes all of North Carolina).

To get your tree off to the best start, dig the hole no deeper than the height of the root ball. When you plant, the top of the root ball should be level with or a little higher than the ground. Dig the planting hole at least 2 to 3 times wider than the root ball. When you finish planting, use your hands to form a 3-inch-high mound or berm around the edge of the root ball with the remaining backfill. The mound will help make sure all the water goes right into the root ball. This will usually hold about 5 gallons of water and can be removed after the first year.

We have ours along a dry creek bed near its cousin, the bald cypress, and not far from a cluster of Japanese cryptomerias, which are also stately conifers. The deciduous dawn redwood is a colorful fall complement to the evergreen cryptomerias.

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