Metasequoia

Metasequoia

Our favorite tree is the endangered Metasequoia, also known as the dawn redwood. We have planted over 50 of these stately conifers in the last 20 years, and maybe as many as 100. A handful of those were street trees, which the Metasequoia is particularly well adapted to be.

Metasequoia: “meta” — like metamorphosis — means “to change”. Sequoia is derived from the eponymous Cherokee (1767–1843) inventor of the Cherokee syllabary, a set of written symbols resembling an alphabet.

In winter, the Metasquoia drops its needles. A deciduous conifer, it is like the bald cypress found in Louisiana and neighboring states. One could say it is truly paradoxical.  Its existence was long speculated to be a missing evolutionary link between conifers and deciduous trees.

Thriving in wet swampy land, such as rice paddies (another characteristic it shares with the bald cypress), the Metasequoia was discovered in China during WWII, yet now faces extinction in the Orient. In a small sack containing thousands of seeds, each about half the size of a pinkie finger nail, an arborist who was in the army during the war, brought back the first seeds to the U.S. to the Arnold Arboretum.

The oldest Metasequoias in the US, and most likely the New World, are in a small grove to your left when you enter the Arnold Arboretum in Brookline, Massachusetts. Two Metasequoias reside in front of Cambridge Public Library on Broadway.

The tree is very interesting morphologically. Its needles are really more like ferns, distinguishing it from other conifers, and the bark on the trunk grows in a shredded pattern, as though it has been a scratching post for a cat.

When the Metasequoia reaches a certain maturity –probably between 15 and 30 years– it develops “buttresses”, rib-like projections that start out perhaps 30 inches above grade and then flare as they reach the soil.

While as majestic as its California cousin sequoia sempervirens, it will never grow to that size. It is much better house-broken in that it seems to almost have an understanding of where humans want it to grow and where it should avoid putting its roots and branches.

A great street tree –output equals input—the Metasequoia will grow in proportion to how much you water it; it will almost stop growing if the watering stops.

It will not break sidewalks or foundations, for when its roots meet refusal, they cease growing. We have planted it next to dry stacked cobble walls and brick paths on stone dust. Almost twenty years later, the trees have reached 50 to 60 feet, the trunks are 18 inch caliper, and the brick and cobbles only two feet away remain undisturbed.

I planted many near the corner of Pleasant and Putnam in Cambridgeport, and some in Riverside on River Street and Blackstone Street, and a row of eight along my fence at my house on Pleasant Street, in 1995. At planting they were 10 feet tall, and I could not see the tops of the ones outside my bedroom from my bed, as they were too low. When I moved out in 2013, I could not see those same tops because they were too high. They are now about 60 feet tall. The adjacent brick paths and cobble walls look as smooth and undisturbed as the day I built them.

The Metasequoia will take care of itself just fine. You or the condominium association need to do very little to maintain and keep well this tree. Water it a little more than the rest of the garden and you will probably want to limb it up to about five feet as the lower branches die due to lack of sunlight. As with all trees, do not raise the level of soil against the trunk, and do not leave anything tied to the trunk.

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