Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The tree that came back from the dead

If you've ever wandered through the conifers section of a garden centre there is a pretty good chance you've born witness to the greatest comeback since Lazarus. In 1944 Metasequoia, the Dawn Redwood, was known only from fossils dating back to the time of the dinosaurs. That year however a researcher found living Metasequoia in China in a small village. Subsequently a small stand was found that was being aggressively deforested at the time and known locally as Shui-sa (literally water fir (apparently)). Due to the war little action was taken immediately but in 1948 the modern Metasequoia glyptostroboides was described and Harvard University's Arnold Arboretum collected seeds which were grown on and distributed throughout the west. I've seen a number of the late 40's/early 50's Mets but last year I went to Cambridge Mas to check out the Arnold and its grove of Metasequoia.

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They grew up tall and dandy. Fossil finds are spread across the world and split into a number of different species. Due to the limited genetic diversity of the original collection a secondary collection was made in the late '80's to boost the gene pool. Since then Metasequoia have become a very popular tree due to their hardiness in a range of conditions and are available at all good garden centres (there is also a rather spectacular golden form now available called Goldrush). The original tree found all those years ago became something of a celebrity in China, the local villagers proudly defended it with chains when it was scheduled for felling to allow a road to pass. I've been unable to ascertain whether it still stands but have no reason to think it doesn't.

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There are apparently only 5,000 wild trees left but their legacy lives on again in parks and gardens around the world. Given enough time, and taking into account their abilities to withstand weather extremes and pollution, perhaps the Metasequoia will once again rule the world.

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That wouldn't be so bad, would it?


Julia said...

I have never seen them for sale in garden centres - maybe they're just not popular at the moment. They are beautiful trees - I can't get enough of them.

tai haku said...

Maybe it depends on location a bit Julia - We went through a period where every garden centre in the midlands had a few but I guess big spreading trees might be less of a product line in the London/Southern suburby areas.

Also I'm pretty lucky with the garden centres I grew up with - they are mostly excellent.