Dawn Redwood

If you wander up Wall  Street to just before it makes a sharp turn to intersect Bridge Street, you can see a dawn redwood (metasequoia glyptostroboides). It’s located across the street from the windmill. This tree has a most interesting history.

Dawn redwoods were long thought to be extinct, represented only in fossil leaf and cone prints from Japan and Manchuria.  Then, in 1943, a Chinese forester named Chan Wang and his assistant collected specimens of living dawn redwoods near the village of Moudau in Szechauan Province in China. However, they mistakenly identified the specimens as glyprostrobus pensilis, or Chinese Swamp Cypress.

Cambria's historic Dawn Redwood stands on Bridge Street

Cambria's historic Dawn Redwood stands on Bridge Street

In 1945, two Chinese botanists, Chung-Lun Wu and Wan-Chun Cheng, obtained samples from Wang and realized that the samples were not from any known tree. The following year Cheng notified Elmer Drew Merrill, director of The Arnold Arboretum at Harvard of the discovery and then Hsen Hsu Hu, director of the Fan Memorial Institute of Biology in Beijing, matched the samples with the existing dawn redwood fossils. Hu then notified Dr. Ralph Chaney, a paleobotanist at the University of California at Berkeley, of the discovery. In December of 1946, The Bulletin of the Geological Society of China published Hu’s paper describing the discovery but the new species still lacked a name.

In 1947, Cheng sent samples of the new species to Merrill which are still extant in the Horticultural Herbarium at Harvard and later in the year he sent seeds as well. The following year Hu sent seeds and other samples to Chaney at Berkeley.

In 1948, Chaney and Milton Silverman, science writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, went to China and brought back seeds and seedlings, distributing them to botanic institutions across North America. It was not until 1961, however, that the new species was officially given the name metasequoia glyptostroboides. The Dawn Redwood is unique among redwood species in that it is deciduous.

According to the late Millie Heath, of Cambria, Chaney brought eight seedlings to UC Berkeley of which three were planted on the campus. She believed that one was given to the late Mrs. Florence Thatcher, a relative of Chaney’s, who planted it near her home on Wall Street in Cambria where it stands today. No corroboration of this story has been found.

Today there are thousands of dawn redwoods growing in America and they are available for purchase from some nurseries. So, while dawn redwoods are not terribly rare anymore, this particular tree appears to have much historic value. The first living tree of this species was discovered in a remote part of China in 1941. The sign in front of the Cambria tree says “…est 1935…” which is clearly impossible unless it implies that this is a seedling brought from China which is estimated to have germinated in 1935. However, its size is consistent with an age of more than 50 years so, even if it did not come directly from Dr. Chaney, it is certainly among the oldest dawn redwoods in America.

4 Responses to “Dawn Redwood”

  1. B&J says:


    Wow! Good eye catching that typo. The extent of our knowledge about trees consists mainly of being pretty reliably able to distinguish between what is a tree and what is not a tree. So any input you can give us about dawn redwoods in general or this specific tree would be greatly appreciated.

    By the way, the last time we looked the plaque was there.


  2. Jesse Clark says:

    It’s very cool to see the History Exchange has covered this very important and little-talked about tree. I too wish to see the plaque replaced, as the tree is of definitive historical value, both for the Cambria community and the international scientific and paleobotanic communities.

    I also noticed a typo in the latin name of the tree – in the above article it reads “metasequoia glyptostroloides” when in fact the correct name is “metasequoia glypostroboides.” I only suggest this in order to improve the accuracy of the already well-written piece.

    Additionally, I am working on a short film about this species’ unique history. I’d love to talk to anyone at the exchange sometime in more detail about this. You can email me at jesse@cinematicsyndicate.com if you read this!


  3. B&J says:


    Of course you’re right. This article was posted almost a year ago and you’re the first one to notice that “it’s” should be “its”.

    You’re also right that Dawn Redwood trees are deciduous so we added that little factoid to the article.

    As to the sign, we did not know that it was missing. The picture above was taken in 2005 and it is not clear if there is a sign on the post but the sign clearly shows in another picture we took the same day. Due to inept photography on our part, we can’t quite read what the sign said.

  4. Lee Sutter says:

    I parked by the tree yesterday, to give my dogs protection from sun. I often parked there to have lunch while a reporter for The Cambrian. I recall Millie Heath told me about the tree, when I was concerned about its needles yellowing, and I learned from her it was deciduous (something not noted, and should be, in your article here). Yesterday I noticed a real estate sign on a post that I believe used to bear a plaque identifying the tree. I do know a plaque used to be there. If it is indeed gone, I hope it can be replaced, since this is a remarkable specimen.
    Thank you for your site. One correction: in your final graph, “it’s” shoud be “its”

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