A dawn redwood forest in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, China. (Costfoto/Future Publishing via Getty Images)

The little-known third redwood

Most Californians are familiar with California’s two redwoods, the hulking giant sequoias of the Sierra and the soaring coast redwoods that huddle in the mists near the Pacific. But there’s a third species. In 1941, a Japanese paleobotanist named Shigeru Miki was the first to identify the genus Metasequoia based on fossil evidence, describing it as once widely distributed but long since extinct. A few years later, a forester in China’s Sichuan province discovered a thriving specimen.

The Berkeley paleontologist Ralph Chaney was so excited by the news that he traveled to China to see for himself in 1948, accompanied by the San Francisco Chronicle science writer Milton Silverman. After a grueling three-day hike, they found themselves standing in a grove of roughly 1,000 metasequoias, some nearly 100 feet tall with rich orange color and feathery needles. Chaney said it as remarkable as finding a living dinosaur.

“Here was a fossil come to life, a giant whose kind had persisted out of the past to tell us the story of the earth millions of years before man came to live on it.”

In his front-page dispatch, Silverman called the trees “dawn redwoods,” a name dreamed up with the Chronicle’s city editor to sound more romantic. It stuck. The arboretum at Harvard University funded a collecting expedition to bring samples to North America, where they became the first dawn redwoods to grow in the continent’s soil in more than two million years. A handful were eventually planted along the West Coast, close to their California cousins. 

  • A California tree database shows the locations of dawn redwoods across the state. 👉 Calflora

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