Biography of Durham’s Finest Tree* No. 5: Cranford Road Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) ‘A Living Fossil’

by Wendy Diaz, EMGV

The 2016 Durham’s Finest Tree nominations were evaluated in the fall of 2016 and the winners will be announced at the Trees Over Durham Forum on April 24th, 2017 at about 6:15 at the Durham Arts Center, 120 Morris Street by Ms. Tobin L. Freid, Durham Sustainability Manager.  Of the sixteen trees nominated last year, seven met the criteria of a fine example of a tree species due to their size, historical importance or other meritorious significance.  The Dawn Redwood, Metasequoia glyptostroboides, located on Cranford Road in the Duke Forest neighborhood of Durham is a fine specimen and was nominated by its owner John Vandenberg.

Looking up at the horizontal branches of the Cranford Road Dawn Redwood  Photo taken October 26, 2016 by Wendy Diaz 


The Cranford Road Dawn Redwood has a trunk circumference of 110.5 inches and it is 106 feet in height with a canopy spread of 57 feet.  Because of its height, this backyard tree towers over the house and can be seen from the street.  In fact, the dawn redwood is almost as high as the current North Carolina Champion Tree of the same species located in the azalea gardens on the Biltmore Estate in Buncombe County at a height of 114 feet (42 feet crown spread, circumference 137 inches)2.

Dawn Redwood located on Cranford Road in Duke Forest.  Foliage is green but change color after a frost in the fall.  Photo taken on October 26, 2016 by Wendy Diaz


Although a non-native species and introduced into the United States in 1948, it existed in the Pacific Northwest from about 38 million to about 5 million years ago. The Dawn Redwood is closely related to bald cypress (Taxodium) and the redwood (Sequoia)2. The conifer is deciduous and grows a distinctly conical shape with horizontal branching3 and typically grows to 100 feet tall.  Another unique feature and attractive attribute is that the tree develops a broad buttressed trunk with ‘elaborate fluting’ and braided structure with maturity3.  The bark is cedar-like or shredded and reddish-brown in color.  The foliage is ‘linear, feathery and fern-like’ as well as soft to touch.  Through the seasons the foliage changes color from light green in the spring, to deep green in the summer and a unique pinkish-tan to reddish-bronze color in the fall (after a frost). The trees are monoecious, with light brown small female cones (3/4” long) and pendant globose male cones (1/2” long).  The Dawn Redwood prefers moist, well-drained, slightly acidic soils, mild winters and full sun and is fast growing.  It tolerates deer, clay and wet soil.  It tolerates growing zones 4 to 8, however, there is a dawn redwood growing in a Montreal, Canada cemetary but the tree does not grow as tall in colder climates.

Red-brown, shredded bark of Dawn Redwood.  Photo taken on October 26, 2016 by Wendy Diaz















Reddish-bronze (orange) color of Dawn Redwood fall foliage.  Photo taken December 1, 2016 by Wendy Diaz
Closeup of fall color of feathery/fern-like Dawn Redwood foliage.  Photo taken December 1, 2016 by Wendy Diaz














Species Background

The species Metasequoia glyptostroboides was thought only to exist in the fossil record until live plants were discovered in 1941 in their native habitat of Szechuan province in west central China by a Chinese forester T. Kan4.

Fossil of Metasequoia glyptostostroboides (Dawn Redwood) branch of Early Middle Eocene age or about 56 million years ago.  Photo courtesy of The Virtual Fossil Museum, Rossil Site: McAbee Fossil Beds, Tranquille Shale, Cache Creek, British Columbia, Canada)5

Local inhabitants called the tree shui-sa, or water fir and dug wild young trees and planted them along their rice fields, streams or in front of their doors.  Harvard educated Chinese botanist Professor Hsen Hsu Hu recognized the newly discovered tree and fossil were of the same species and published a paper announcing the discovery of a new living species.  In 1947, seeds from the trees were collected during a trip financed by Dr. E. D. Merrill, director of the Arnold Arboretum at Harvard University.  In 1948, Dr. Merrill gave the seeds to ‘76 institutions and persons interested in trees for propagation purposes” around the world.  The 1941 discovery was at a most opportune time as the trees were almost extinct because there were about 1000 trees in total left (only 100 large) in existence and natives were using the wood for construction purposes.  Journalists at the San Francisco Chronicle created the common name of Dawn Redwood before the scientific name was established several months later.  As a result of the seed distribution, large Dawn Redwood trees are widely distributed in the United States and around the world.  They can be seen at the north lawn of the Smithsonian Institution, Kew Gardens in England, Dunedin Botanical Gardens, New Zealand and at our own Sarah P. Duke Gardens in Durham (planted in 1949).  A detailed history of the existence of the Dawn Redwood since its propagation in the United States can be found in the 1998-99 issue of Arnoldia, the magazine of the Arnold Arboretum4.

Local Tree and Neighborhood History

The Cranford Road Dawn Redwood is thought to be about 57 years old.  Around 1960, the Dawn Redwood was planted by Dr. Jane Philpott, a professor of Botany at Duke University who owned the house prior to Mr. and Mrs. Vanderburg. ‘Dr. Philpott’s colleagues placed a bench in her memory across from the Dawn Redwood found at the Sarah P. Duke Gardens by the fish pond’ according to Mr. Vanderburg. Dr. Philpott passed away about 15 years ago.

The Duke Forest neighborhood is part of an 8000-acre tract of land acquired by the Trinity College trustees in the 1920’s so that they can expand the institution into Duke University6. It became known as Duke Forest because it was heavily wooded.  In 1929, Duke University began to develop the small Duke Forest neighborhood, in order to attract professors to its faculty from other parts of the country during the depression by having the professors purchase housing lots at prices below fair market value.  The University placed restrictive covenants on the subdivided lots such as requiring land sale only to other Duke University faculty, house set backs of a minimum of 50 feet from the street and 15 from the side property boundaries and the professor purchasing the lot had to build his/her own house.  Duke University and the original ‘faculty owners also paid for street paving, sidewalks, curb, gutters and fire hydrants.  The last period of development occurred between 1950 and 1970 and some of the homes constructed in the Duke Forest neighborhood are examples of ‘Durham’s best collection of modernist housing’.

Distinctive conical form and fall color of the Cranford Dawn Redwood.  Photo taken December 1, 2016 by Wendy Diaz

The Cranford Road Dawn Redwood may not be a ‘native’ but its large presence among all the indigenous pines of Duke Forest add to the diverse natural majesty of this part of Durham and asserts its place as a welcomed inhabitant in this Duke Forest Neighborhood.  Please respect private property and view the Cranford Road Dawn Redwood from the street if you go and see this majestic, historically significant tree.


Photo taken November 22, 2016 by Wendy Diaz



  7. Four win in Durham’s Finest Trees contest” The Herald Sun-The Durham Herald, Durham, North Carolina Sunday, August 7, 2016 Page 6 (correction published on August 8, 2016)

* Durham’s Finest Trees program recognizes significant trees in Durham County, promotes discovery and ability to identify trees, and helps preserve the best examples of specific tree species, particularly native and those trees well adapted to Durham County. The program also promotes awareness of trees in our community and hopes to catalog fine examples of magnificent specimens of trees due to their size, setting, historical importance, or significant feature.

Durham naturalists and tree lovers of all ages are invited to submit their nominations for significant trees in Durham County now through October 1, 2017. Trees on private or public property can be nominated in each of the three categories: largest, historical, or meritorious. Preference will be given to native North Carolina tree species. Non-native trees may be considered if they are of a species, subspecies, variety or cultivar proven to be relatively long-lived and well adapted to North Carolina. Winning trees nominated in 2017 will be recognized on Durham’s Arbor Day in 2018. Please read the official rules before submitting a nomination.

On March 6, 2016, four Durham trees (nominated in the 2015, the first year of the Durham’s Finest Tree program) located across the city and county were recognized for their size and significance during Durham’s Arbor Day ceremony at the Museum of Life and Science.7