Biography of Durham’s Finest Tree* No. 6: Duke Lemur Center Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides): Another ‘Living Fossil’

The 2016 Durham’s Finest Tree nominations were evaluated in the fall of 2016. Ms. Tobin L. Freid, Durham Sustainability Manager announced the winners at the Trees Over Durham Forum on April 24th, 2017 in the Durham Arts Center. 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 at the Duke Lemur Center is a ‘gorgeous specimen’ and won in both the Large and Historical categories. Charlie Welch, the Conservation Coordinator at the Duke Lemur Center located at 3705 Erwin Road, nominated this Dawn Redwood. The Duke Lemur Center Dawn Redwood is the second Dawn Redwood to win the DFT honor this year, the other tree is located in the Duke Forest neighborhood and was described in an April 8, 2017 blog article1.


Species Description

The Duke Lemur Center Dawn Redwood has a trunk circumference of 102 inches and it is 94 feet in height with a canopy spread of 61 feet. This beautiful specimen has a textbook conical shape with a wide canopy spread. In fact, the Duke Lemur Center dawn redwood has a significantly larger spread than the current North Carolina Champion Tree of the same species located in the azalea gardens at the Biltmore Estate in Buncombe County, which has a 42 feet crown spread (height of 114 feet and circumference 137 inches)2.

Looking up at the horizontal branches of the Dawn Redwood located at the Duke Lemur Center taken December 1, 2016 by Wendy Diaz
Dawn Redwood after needles have fallen. Note conical shape and roughly horizontal branching. Photo taken by Wendy Diaz on March 14, 2017



Broad buttressed trunk. Photo taken by Wendy Diaz on December 1, 2016

Although a non-native species and introduced into the United States in 1948, it once 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)3. 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 maturity4 and the bark is cedar-like or shredded and red-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. It tolerates deer, clay and wet soil; with a growing zone of 4 to 8, the tree does not grow as tall in colder climates.

Reddish-bronze color of Dawn Redwood foliage. Photo taken by Sebastian Diaz on December 1, 2016


Close-up of fall color of feathery/fern-like Dawn Redwood foliage. Photo taken by Wendy Diaz on December 1, 2016


















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 in Szechuan province of west central China by a Chinese forester T. Kan5. Local natives called the tree shui-sa, or water fir and dug wild young trees and planted them along their rice fields, or 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 most opportune time as the trees were almost extinct because there were only about 1000 trees in total (100 large) left 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, which was 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 Arboretum5.

Fossilized branch of Metasequoia glyptostostroboides (Dawn Redwood) Early Middle Eocene or about 5 million years ago. (Photo courtesy of The Virtual Fossil Museum Fossil Site: McAbee Fossil Beds, Tranquille Shale, Cache Creek, British Columbia, Canada)6 


This tree was planted as a cutting 50 years ago after the Duke Lemur Center was built in 1966. Dr. Peter Klopfer, Duke University remembers his daughters helping to plant the cuttings, which were brought to Durham by Richard Filmore, former head of Duke Gardens and formerly of the Arnold Arboretum. Dr. Klopfer was told that Mr. Filmore was the first to vegetatively propagate the dawn redwood.

Charles Welch said that the tree produced viable seed only once, about 5 few years ago. Hundreds of seedlings germinated and started growing under the ‘mother tree’. He and the staff of Duke Lemur Center transplanted many of the seedlings around the Duke Lemur Center ground, “so hoping for a forest of such beautiful individuals some day!” They also gave ten of the seedlings to the Museum of Life and Science in Durham for planting along their dinosaur trail and another ten seedlings were given to the Asheboro Zoo. Early observations from the newly planted Dawn Redwood trees in North America suggested that viable male cones were subject to winter injury in this continent’s climate and that the male cones are produced later than female cones during the lifespan of this species7. Scientists at the Arnoldia Arboretum observed that when the trees approached 15 to 20 years of age, they produced cones and sometimes only a few “some 20 year old trees may still not be old enough to produce male cones.”

The Duke Lemur Dawn Redwood may not be a ‘native’ but its large stately presence adds to the atmosphere at this well- loved center by families and it has produced a legacy that will last generations at other popular sites in North Carolina such as the Museum of Life and Science and the Zoo with its seedlings. Please respect private property and view the tree from the Lemur Center’s parking lot or better yet, arrange a tour and get a better view of the tree from the sidewalk along the Lemur’s enclosures.

Conical form of Duke Lemur Center Dawn Redwood, photo taken by Wendy Diaz May 28, 2017


  8. 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)
  9. May 18, 2017

* 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.8

** Sections (Species Description and Background) of this article were previously published in another article by the same author

by Wendy Diaz